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His Life Vague and Unknown
His Powers of Construction
successful playwrights. There is evidence that he worked much with Dekker, who is so rarely found save in solution with others, with Fletcher, Middleton, Rowley, and Field. He is known to have produced no less than thirty-seven plays, half of which have perished. His best dramas are his tragedy, The Duke of Milan, and his comedy, A New Way to Pay Old Debts, which, on account of the striking and picturesque character of Sir Giles Overreach, still holds the stage.
Massinger's strength as a dramatist lay in his powers of construction, his skill with stage-craft, his subdued and pleasing pictures of contemporary life and manners. Не was almost wholly without spontaneous creative power; he had little humor; he never touched the deeper passions; he seldom created characters that are not of the stage stagey.
He never [says Lamb] shakes or disturbs the mind with grief. He is read with composure and placid delight. He wrote with that equability of all the passions which made his English style the purest and most free from violent metaphors and harsh constructions of any of the dramatists who were his contemporaries.
Everywhere in Massinger's work—and the statement is equally true of Shirley and of all the later dramatiststhere are signs of decaying vitality. Sentiment has taken the place of passion; rhetorical finish has supplanted the fine frenzy of the early days. There is an increased elaboration, a growing tendency toward complexity and detail, a striving after the novel and unusual. Picturesque types and extreme situations, first used by Jonson, have taken the place of studies from life and nature. The era was fast declining. Fletcher and Webster and Tourneur were the blazing and shifting colors of the sun.
The Sunset of the Dramatic Era
set; Massinger and Shirley were the fading afterglow that quickly died into leaden hues and utter darkness.
Thus closed the great dramatic era. It stands sharply defined and singularly complete. It was a brief period; Shakespeare and Marlowe might have lived to see its entire extent. It produced all at once a marvelous group of artists: all of the real masters of the era received their inspiration during a single decade. The decline began when the ranks of this earlier school began to thin; the recruits from the second generation of dramatists were all inferior men. It was a period of romanticism: it was impossible to make headway with classic forms after the great dramas of Shakespeare. He was the Jupiter who drew all minor bodies into his vast orbit. The ponderous Jonson might resist but he could not overcome the noiseless force that drew all men to his great contemporary. It was, despite its brevity, a well-rounded era, passing through every phase of growth and decline. And it ended in a decay that was the result of inevitable laws; that arose from the decline in the national life, from the subsidence of that joyous and spontaneous spirit that had first made the era possible. REQUIRED READING. A New Way to Pay Old Debts (Bell's English Classics).
I. PERIOD OF TRANSITION.
1561–1593. From Gorboduc to the death of
A gradual blending of the
old native drama with John LYLY, 1553-1606.
Robert Greene, 1560–1592. tragedy to produce the George Peele, 1550 ?-1598 ? new romantic type. The
Thomas Nash, 1567-1600 ? work of Marlowe marks Thomas Lodge, 1558 ?-1625. transition to the next
CHRISTOPHER MARLOWE, period.
II. PERIOD OF CULMINATION.
1593–1616. To the death of Shakespeare,
Spontaneous creative WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, power. Work done from
1564-1616. nature and not from Thomas Dekker, c. 1570 models. Scenes and 1637. characters true to the GEORGE CHAPMAN, 1559 ?great fundamentals of
1634. human life. Artlessness THOMAS HEYWOOD, 1581 ?and simplicity. Jonson 1640 ? marks beginning of de- John Marston, 1575 ?-1634. cline.
BEN JONSON, 1573–1637.
Art learned by careful
Francis Beaumont, 1534creasing elaboration of
JOHN FLETCHER, 1579-1625. PERIOD OF DEturesque types, marked
JOHN WEBSTER, 1580 ?-1625 ? exceptions; scenes unCADENCE.
CYRIL TOURNEUR, -?1616-1637. usual, sensational, ex
John Ford, 1586–1640 ? To the death of treme; a constant striv
Thomas Middleton, 1570Jonson. ing after novelty and
1627. all that is unusual ; dic
Philip Massinger, 1583–1640. tion rhetorical and fin
James Shirley, 1596–1666. ished, rather than spontaneous.
John Crowne, -?-? striving after effects ; Sir William Davenant, 1606– PERIOD OF immoral scenes and sug
1668. QUICK DECLINE.
gestions. Not until af1637–1642.
Richard Brome, -?-? ter the Restoration did To the closing of
Sir John Suckling, 1609the drama reach its lowthe theaters.
1641. est level of degradation.
THE TRIUMPH OF PROSE
THE homely, yet strong and picturesque, writings of
men like of English prose what the creations of Langland and the ballad-makers are in English poetry. They were vigorous, unschooled, spontaneous outpourings. The Renaissance touched this native prose, but it did not greatly change its form or its spirit. Sir John Cheke, the master mind of the Cambridge scholars, maintained that “our tongue should be written clean and pure, unmixed and unmingled with borrowings of other tongues,” and his influence and that of his followers kept the old vernacular prose in something like its native simplicity. But classic influence was inevitable. Later scholars like Ascham were influenced all unconsciously by their knowl. edge of Greek and Latin; their work was often permeated by the classic spirit; it followed often in curious windings the classic order, and there are traces even of classic idioms. English prose very gradually was beginning to assume two forms, the scholarly and the popular, yet it is needless to attempt to draw the line between them. The scholarly writers made no attempt to evolve a new prose style; their imitation of the classics had been all unconscious; it had come spontaneously and was as free from artificiality and from deliberate self-criticism as were even Latimer's unclassic sermons. All
All prose before Lyly, and indeed much that came after his time, belongs
Three Periods of English Prose
The Need of a Great Prose Master
Blast of the Trum
pet. 1963. Foxe's Book of
about the Azores,
to the first period, the period of writers who were entirely occupied with their message and who gave not a thought to the manner of presenting it. The prose of this earliest period has already 1552. The Book of been considered. It is singularly rich
1558. Knox's First and voluminous, and it contains some of the strongest and most idiomatic creations in the language.
Martyrs. With Lyly begins the second period 1577; Holinshed's of English prose, the period of experi- 1579. North's Plument, of uncertainty, of transition. All
1581. Sidney's Apolin a moment, with a single book, English ogy for Poesy,
1582. Hakluyt's Di. prose leaped from the extreme of sim
vers Voyages. plicity to the extreme of elaboration. 1589. Puttenham's Art Euphues was a mere vagary, but it marks
1591. Raleigh's Fight the opening of an epoch. The vogue of Euphuism was short, but not so the vogue of prose that depended upon some peculiarity of style. For a decade style was everything; readers read books not for what was said but for how it was said. A time of reaction was inevitable; sooner or later a master must appear to gather up the strongest elements of both schools and unite them in a new and superior type of prose.
This master proved to be Richard Hooker. With no thought of producing a new literary form, with no thought of anything save the message that burned within him, he produced a prose that was as impassioned and spontaneous as Latimer's and as finished and artificial as Lyly's. He stands as a transition figure; he by no means spoke the final word concerning English prose; it remained for later masters to form the perfect blend between the styles of