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“Shakespeare was the first who, to shun the pains of continual rhyming, invented that kind of writing which we call blank-verse.” The distinction belongs to Marlowe, the greatest of Shakespeare's predecessors, and a poet who, if he had lived, might, perhaps, have been a formidable rival of his genius. We have too much reverence for the exhaustless originality of our great dramatist, to think that he cannot afford this, or any other tribute to a poet, who, as far as the public stage is concerned, deserves to be regarded as the inventor of a new style of composition.
That the attempt was viewed with jealousy there can be no doubt, after what we have quoted from Nash and Greene. It is most likely that Greene, who was older than Nash, had previously written various dramas in rhyme; and the bold experiment of Marlowe having been instantly successful, Greene was obliged to abandon his old course, and his extant plays are all in blankverse. Nash, who had attacked Marlowe in 1587, before 1593 (when Marlowe was killed) had joined him in the production of a blank-verse tragedy on the story of Dido, which was printed in 1594.
It has been objected to “ Tamburlaine,” that it is written in a turgid and ambitious style, such indeed as Nash and Greene ridicule; but we are to recollect that Marlowe was at this time endeavouring to wean audiences from the “jigging veins of rhyming motherwits,” and that in order to satisfy the ear for the loss of the jingle, he was obliged to give what Nash calls “the swelling bombast of bragging blank-verse.” This consideration will of itself account for breaches of a more correct taste to be found in “Tamburlaine.” In the Prologue, besides what we have already quoted, Marlowe tells the audience to expect “high astounding terms,” and he did not disappoint expectation. Perhaps the better to reconcile the ordinary frequenters of public theatres to the change, he inserted various
scenes of low comedy, which the printer of the edition in 1590 thought fit to exclude, as “ digressing, and far unmeet for the matter.” Marlowe likewise sprinkled couplets here and there, although it is to be remembered, that having accomplished his object of substituting blank-verse by the first part of “ Tamburlaine,” he did not, even in the second part, think it necessary by any means so frequently to introduce occasional rhymes. In those plays which there is ground for believing to be the first works of Shakespeare, couplets, and even stanzas, are more frequent than in any of the surviving productions of Marlowe. This circumstance is, perhaps, in part to be accounted for by the fact (as far as we may so call it) that our great poet retained in some of his performances portions of older rhyming dramas, which he altered and adapted to the stage; but in early plays, which are to be looked upon as entirely his own, Shakespeare appears to have deemed rhyme more necessary to satisfy the ear of his auditory than Marlowe held it when he wrote his “ Tamburlaine the Great.”
As the first employment of blank-verse upon the public stage by Marlowe is a matter of much importance, in relation to the history of our more ancient drama, and to the subsequent adoption of that form of composition by Shakespeare, we ought not to dismiss it without affording a single specimen from “ Tamburlaine the Great." The following is a portion of a speech by the hero to Zenocrate, when first he meets and sues to her:
“ Disdains Zenocrate to live with me,
Or you, my lords, to be my followers ?
Fairer than whitest snow on Scythian hills,
Nash having alluded to “Tamburlaine" in 1587, it is evident that it could hardly have been written later than 1585 or 1586, which is about the period when it has been generally, and with much appearance of probability, supposed that Shakespeare arrived in London. In considering the state of the stage just before our great dramatist became a writer for it, it is clearly, therefore, necessary to advert briefly to the other works of Marlowe, observing in addition, with reference to “Tamburlaine,” that it is a historical drama, in which not a single unity is regarded; time, place, and action, are equally set at defiance, and the scene shifts at once to or from Persia, Scythia, Georgia, and Morocco, as best suited the purpose of the poet.
Marlowe was also, most likely, the author of a play in which the Priest of the Sun was prominent, as Greene mentions it with “ Tamburlaine” in 1588, but no such piece is now known: he however wrote “The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus,” “ The Massacre at Paris,” “The rich Jew of Malta,” and an English historical play, called “The troublesome
Our quotation is from a copy of the edition of 1590, 4to, in the library of Lord Francis Egerton, which we believe to be the earliest : on the title-page it is stated that it is “now first and newly published.” It was several times reprinted. No modern edition is to be trusted : they are full of the grossest errors, and never could have been collated.
Reign and lamentable Death of Edward the Second,” besides aiding Nash in “ Dido Queen of Carthage,” as already mentioned. If they were not all of them of a date anterior to any of Shakespeare's original works, they were written by a man who had set the example of the employment of blank-verse upon the public stage, and perhaps of the historical and romantic drama in all its leading features and characteristics. His “ Edward the Second” affords sufficient proof of both these points: the versification displays, though not perhaps in the same abundance, nearly all the excellences of Shakespeare; and in point of construction, as well as in interest, it bears a strong resemblance to the “Richard the Second” of our great dramatist. It is impossible to read the one without being reminded of the other, and we can have no difficulty in assigning “Edward the Second” to an anterior periodo.
The same remark as to date may be made upon the plays which came from the pen of Robert Greene, who died in September, 1592, when Shakespeare was rising into notice, and exciting the jealousy of dramatists who had previously furnished the public stages. This jealousy broke out on the part of Greene in, if not before, 1592, (in which year his “Groatsworth of Wit,” a posthumous work, was published by his contemporary Henry Chettle') when he complained that Shakespeare had “beautified himself” with the feathers of others: he alluded, as we apprehend, to the manner in which Shakespeare had availed himself of the two parts of the “ Contention between the Houses, York and Lancaster,” in the authorship of which there is much reason to suppose Greene had been concerned? Such evidence as remains upon this point has been adduced in our “ Introduction” to “ The Third Part of Henry VI.;" and a perusal of the two parts of the “ Contention,” in their original state, will serve to show the condition of our dramatic literature at that great epoch of our stagehistory, when Shakespeare began to acquire celebrity?. “ The True Tragedy of Richard III.” is a drama of about the same period, which has come down to us in a much more imperfect state, the original manuscript having been obviously very corrupt. It was printed in 1594, and Shakespeare, finding it in the possession of the company to which he was attached, probably bad no scruple in constructing his “Richard the Third” of some of its rude materials. It seems not unlikely that Robert Greene, and perhaps some other popular dramatists of his day, had been engaged upon “ The True Tragedy of Richard III.4”
8 Another play, not published until 1657, under the title of “Lust's Dominion,” has also been constantly, but falsely, assigned to Marlowe: some of the historical events contained in it did not happen until five years after the death of that poet. This fact was distinctly pointed out nearly twenty years ago, in the last edition of Dodsley's Old Plays (vol. ii. p. 3)l); but nevertheless “ Lust's Dominion” has since been spoken of and treated as Marlowe's undoubted production, and even included in editions of his works. It is in all probability the same drama as that which, in Henslowe's Diary, is called “ The Spanish Moor's Tragedy," which was written by Dekker, Haughton, and Day, in the beginning of the year 1600.
9 In the History of English Dramatic Poetry and the Stage, vol. iii. p. 139, it is incautiously stated, that “the character of Shakespeare's Richard II. seems modelled in no slight degree upon that of Edward 11.” We willingly adopt the qualification of Mr. Hallam upon this point, where he says (“ Introduc. tion to the Literature of Europe," vol. ii. p. 171, edit. 1843), “I am reluctant to admit that Shakespeare modelled his characters by those of others; and it is natural to ask whether there were not an extraordinary likeness in the dispositions, as well as in the fortunes of the two kings ?”
The dramatic works published under the name or
1 In our biographical account of Shakespeare, under the date of 1592, we have necessarily entered more at large into this question.
? Mr. Hallam (“Introduction to the Literature of Europe," vol. ii. p. 171) supposes that the words of Greene, referring to Shakespeare, “ There is an upstart crow beautified with our feathers,” are addressed to Marlowe, who may have had a principal share in the production of the two parts of the “ Contention.” This conjecture is certainly more than plausible ; but we may easily imagine Greene to have alluded to himself also, and that he had been Marlowe's partner in the composition of the two dramas, which Shakespeare remodelled, perhaps, not very long before the death of Greene,
3 They have been accurately reprinted by the Shakespeare Society, under the care of Mr. Halliwell, from the earliest impressions in 1594 and 1595.
• This drama has also been reprinted by the Shakespeare Society, with perfect fidelity to the original edition of 1594, in the library of the Duke of Devonshire. The reprint was superintended by Mr. B. Field.