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George Peele was about the same age as Lyly'; but his theatrical productions (with the exception of "The Arraignment of Paris,” printed in 1584, and written for the court) are of a different description, having been intended for exhibition at the ordinary theatres. His “ Edward the First" he calls a “famous chronicle,” and most of the incidents are derived from history: it is, in fact, one of our earliest plays founded upon English annals. It was printed in 1593 and in 1599, but with so many imperfections, that we cannot accept it as any fair representation of the state in which it came from the author's pen. The most remarkable feature belonging to it is the unworthy manner in which Peele sacrificed the character of Queen Isabel to his desire to gratify the popular antipathy to the Spaniards: the opening of it is spirited, and affords evidence of the author's skill as a writer of blank-verse. His “Battle of Alcazar” may also be termed a historical drama, in which he allowed himself the most extravagant licence as to time, incidents, and characters: it perhaps preceded his “Edward the First " in point of date, (though not printed until 1594) and the principal event it refers to occurred in 1578. “Sir Clyomon and Clamydes is merely a romance, in the old form of a rhyming play';
' He is supposed to have been born about the year 1553. He was probably son to Stephen Peele, who was a bookseller and a writer of ballads : Stephen Peele was the publisher of Bishop Bale's miracle-play of “God's Promises," in 1577, and bis name is subscribed, as author, to two ballads printed by the Percy Society in 1840. The connexion between Stephen and George Peele has never struck any of the biographers of the latter. Stephen Peele was most likely the author of a pageant on the mayoralty of Sir W. Draper, in 1566-7. The Rev. A. Dyce has superintended an edition of “George Peele's Works," in 3 vols. 8vo, but here again we have to regret that he adhered to the old editions so closely, that he has preserved not a few of their blemishes. In the drama of “ David and Bethsabe," he prints a passage delivered by the hero in these words :
Bright Bethsabe gives earth to my desires,
Verdure to earth.” It needs but little thought to discover that the old compositor made nonsense of the first line by erroneously catching the word “ earth” from the second line : we must inevitably read,
Bright Bethsabe gives birth to my desires,
Verdure to earth." Fidelity to the text of an old play is a great recommendation, when it is not obtained at the sacrifice of the true and clear mcaning of the poet.
It may be doubted whether Peele wrote any part of this production: it was printed anonymously in 1599, and all the evidence of authorship is the existence of a copy with the name of Peele, in an old band, upon the title-page. If he wrote it at all, it was doubtless a very early composition, and it belongs precisely to the class of romantic plays ridiculed by Stephen Gosson about 1580.
of his progress.
and “David and Bethsabe," a scriptural drama, and a great improvement upon older pieces of the same character: Peele here confined himself strictly to the incidents in Holy Writ, and it certainly contains the best specimens of his blank-verse composition. His “Old Wives' Tale,” in the shape in which it has reached us, seems hardly deserving of criticism, and it would have received little notice but for some remote, and perhaps accidental, resemblance between its story and that of Milton's “ Comus I."
The “Jeronimo” of Thomas Kyd is to be looked upon as a species of transition play: the date of its composition, on the testimony of Ben Jonson, may be stated to be prior to 1588, just after Marlowe had produced his “ Tamburlaine," and when Kyd hesitated to follow his bold step to the full extent
“ Jeromino is therefore partly in blankverse, and partly in rhyme: the same observation will apply, though not in the same degree, to Kyd's "Spanish Tragedy:" it is in truth a second part of “ Jeronimo," the story being continued from one play to the other, and managed with considerable dexterity: the interest in the latter is great, and generally well sustained, and some of the characters are drawn with no little art and force. The success of “Jeronimo,” doubtless, induced Kyd to write the second part of it immediately; and we need not hesitate in concluding that "The Spanish Tragedy” had been acted before 1590.
Besides Marlowe, Greene, Lodge, Lyly, Peele, and Kyd, there were other dramatists, who may be looked upon as the immediate predecessors of Shakespeare, but few of whose printed works are of an earlier date, as regards composition, than some of those which came from the pen of our great poet. Among these, Thomas Nash was the most distinguished, whose contribution to “ Dido,” in conjunction with
* See “Milton's Minor Poems,” by T. Warton, p. 135, edit. 1791. Of this resemblance, Warton, who first pointed it out, remarks, “That Milton had an eye on this ancient drama, which might have been a favourite in bis early youth, perhaps may be affirmed with at least as much credibility, as that he conceived the Paradise Lost from seeing a mystery at Florence, written by Adreini, a Florentine, in 1617, entitled Adamo."
The fact may have been, that Peele and Milton resorted to the same original, now lost : - The Old Wives' Tale” reads exactly as if it were founded upon some popular story-book. • In the Induction to his “
Cynthia's Revels," acted in 1600, where he is speaking of the revival of plays, and among others of " the old Jeronimo" which, he adds, had “ departed a dozen years since."
He however himself wrote “ad. ditions” to it in the very next year, when, perhaps, it was
revived: see “ Hens. lowe's Diary," printed by the Shakespeare Society in 1843, pp. 201. 223.
Marlowe, has been before noticed: the portions which came from the
pen of Marlowe are, we think, easily to be distinguished from those written by Nash, whose genius does not seem to have been of an imaginative or dramatic, but of a satirical and objurgatory character. He produced alone a piece called “Summer's Last Will and Testament,” which was written in the autumn of 1592, but not printed until 1600: it bears internal evidence that it was exhibited as a private show, and it could never have been meant for public performance Henry Chettle, who was also senior to Shakespeare, has left behind him a tragedy called “Hoffman," which was not printed until 1630; and he was engaged with Anthony Munday in producing “The Death of Robert Earl of Huntington,” printed in 1601. From Henslowe's Diary we learn that both these pieces were written subsequent to the date when Shakespeare had acquired a high reputation. Munday had been a dramatist as early as 1584, when a rhyming translation by him, under the title of “The Two Italian Gentlemen," came from the press '; and in the interval between that year and 1602, he wrote the whole or parts of various plays which have been lost'. Robert Wilson ought not to be omitted: he seems to have been a prolific dramatist, but only one comedy by him has survived, under the title of “The Cobbler's Prophecy," and it was printed in 1594. According to the evidence of Henslowe, he aided Drayton and Munday in writing "The First Part
5 It can be shown to have been represented at Croydon, no doubt at Bedding
the residence of the Carews, under whose patronage Nash acknowledges himself to have been living: see the dedication to his “Terrors of the Night," 4to, 1594.
“Summer's Last Will" &c. forms part of Vol. ix. of the edit. of Dodsley's O. P. in 1825. The date of the death of Nash, who probably took & part in the representation, has been disputed, -whether it was before or after 1601; but the production of a cenotaph upon him, from Fitz-Geoffrey's Affaniæ, printed in 1601, must put an end to all doubt: see the Introduction to Nash's “ Pierce Pennyless," 1592, as reprinted for the Shakespeare Society. For par. ticulars relating to the birth, &c. of Nash in 1567, and for entries regarding his father, mother, brothers, and sisters, see Mr. P. Cunningham's communication in “The Shakespeare Society's Papers," Vol. iü. p. 178.
6 The only known copy of this comedy is without a title-page, but it was entered at Stationers' Hall for publication in 1584, and we may presume that it was printed about that date. Extracts from the Stationers' Registers, ii. 193.
? He had a share in the first part of the “ Life of Sir John Oldcastle," which was printed as Shakespeare's work in 1600, although some copies of the play exist without his name on the title-page. All that is known, and considerably more than has been printed, regarding Anthony Munday may be seen in the Introduction to his drama of “ John a Kent and Jobn & Cumber," published froin bis original MS. by the Shakespeare Society in 1851.
of the Life of Sir John Oldcastle,” printed in 1600 ; but he must at that date have been old, if he were the same Robert Wilson who was one of Lord Leicester's theatrical servants in 1574, and who became one of the leaders of the company called the Queen's Players in 1583. He seems to have been a low comedian, and his “Cobbler's Prophecy” is a piece, the drollery of which must have depended in a great degree upon the performers.
With regard to mechanical facilities for the representation of plays before, and indeed long after, the time of Shakespeare, it may be sufficient to state, that our old public theatres were merely wooden buildings, generally round, open to the sky in the audience part of the house, although the stage was covered by a hanging roof: the spectators stood on the ground in front or at the sides, or were accommodated in boxes round the inner circumference of the edifice, or in galleries at a greater elevation. Our ancient stage was not furnished with movable scenery; and tables, chairs, a few boards for a battlemented wall, or a rude structure for a tomb or an altar, seem to have been nearly all the properties it possessed. It was usually hung round with decayed tapestry; and as there was no other mode of conveying the necessary information, the author often provided that the player, on his entrance, should take occasion to mention the place of action. When the business of a piece required that the stage should represent two apartments, the effect was accomplished by a curtain, called a traverse, drawn across it; and a sort of balcony in the rear enabled the writer to represent his characters at a window, on the platform of a castle, or on a raised terrace.
To this simplicity, and to these deficiencies, we doubtless owe some of the finest passages in our early plays; for it was part of the business of the dramatist to supply the absence of coloured canvas by grandeur and luxuriance of description. The ear was thus made the substitute for the eye, and the poet's pen, aided by the auditor's imagination, more than supplied the place of the painter's brush. Movable scenery was unknown in our public theatres until after the Restoration; and, as has been observed elsewhere,
“ the introduction of it gives the date to the commencement of the decline of our dramatic poetry:
How far propriety of costume was regarded, we have no
“ History of Engl. Dram. Poetry and the Stage,” Vol. iii. p. 366.
sufficient means of deciding; but we apprehend that more attention was paid to it than has been generally supposed, or than was accomplished at a much later and more refined period. It is indisputable, that often in this department no outlay was spared : the most costly dresses were purchased, that characters might be consistently habited; and, as a single proof, we may mention, that sometimes more than 201. were given for a cloak ', an enormous price, when it is recollected that money was then four or five times as valuable as at present.
We have thus briefly stated all that seems absolutely required to give the reader a correct idea of the state of the English drama and stage at the period when, according to the best judgment we can form from such evidence as remains to us, Shakespeare advanced to a forward place among the dramatists of the day. As long ago as 1679, Dryden gave currency to the notion, which we have shown to be mistaken, that Shakespeare "created first the stage," and he repeated it in 1692': it is not necessary to the just admiration of our noble dramatist, that we should do injustice to his predecessors or earlier contemporaries : on the contrary, his miraculous powers are best to be estimated by a comparison with his ablest rivals; and if he appear not greatest when his works are placed beside those of Marlowe, Greene, Peele, or Lodge, however distinguished their rank as dramatists, and however deserved their popularity, we shall be content to think, that for more than two centuries the world has been under a delusion as to his claims. He rose to eminence, and he maintained it, amid struggles for equality by men of high genius and varied talents; and with his example ever since before us, no poet of our own, or of any other country, has even approached his excellence. Shakespeare is greatest by comparison with greatness, or he is nothing.
. See “The Alleyn Papers," printed by the Shakespeare Society in 1843, p. 12.
1 In bis Prologue to the alteration of “Troilas and Cressida," 1679, he puts these lines into the mouth of the Ghost of Shakespeare :
Untaught, unpractis'd, in a barbarous age,
I found not, but created first the stage." In the dedication of the translation of Juvenal, thirteen years afterwards, Dryden repeats the same assertion in nearly the same words ; " be created the stage among us." Shakespeare did not create the stage, and least of all did he create it such as it existed in the time of Dryden: “it was, in truth, created by no one man, and in no one age; and whatever improvements Shakespeare introduced, when he began to write for the theatre our romantic drama was completely formed, and firmly established.”- Pref. to “The Hist. of Engl. Dram. Poetry and the Stage," Vol. i. p. xi.