« PreviousContinue »
of dramatic representation—to which reference will again be made-in his later period Jonson made so entirely his own, that it may be said to have died out with him ; for even the “Comus” of Milton will scarcely bear comparison, in certain theatrical respects, with the beautiful Masques which he composed for the entertainment of the Court and nobility. As Lord Bacon said of them, they were written for princes, and by princes they were played. The sound deep genius of Jonson, and his masculine strength and independence, earned him a name which he will never lose--that which Sir John Young, without much premeditation, and for a few pence, had engraved on a common flagstone, but which conveys more to the mind than a tombstone full of panegyric-"O RARE BEN JONSON !"
The following from the “Poetaster” possesses special interest, as it is the poet's defence of his own character. Virgil is the speaker.
“ First you must know
It still hath been a work of as much palm,
The ensuing passage from “Every Man in his Humour,” will show Jonson's skill in comic painting; we have here the character of a swaggering captain :
Wellbred. Captain Bobadil, why muse you so ?
Bobadil. Faith, sir, I was thinking of a most honourable piece of service was performed to-morrow, being St. Mark's day, shall be some ten years now.
E. Knowell. In what place, captain ?
Bob. Why, at the beleaguering of Strigonium, where, in less than two hours seven hundred resolute gentlemen as any were in Europe lost their lives upon the breach. I'll tell you, gentlemen, it was the first but the best leaguer that ever I beheld with these eyes, except the taking-in [conquest] of--what do you call it? last year, by the Genoways; but that, of all other, was the most fatal and dangerous exploit that ever I was ranged in, since I first bore arms before the face of the enemy, as I am a gentleman and a soldier?
Stephen. So! I had as lief as an angel [a coin so called] I could swear as well as that gentleman.
Know. Then you were a servitor, at both, it seems; at Strigonium, and what do you call 't?
Bob, O Lord, sir! By Saint George, I was the first man that entered the breach ; and had I not effected it with resolution, I had been slain, if I had a million of lives.
E. Know. 'Twas pity you had not ten ; a cat's and your own, i' faith. But was it possible?
Mat. Pray you, mark this discourse, sir.
Bob. I assure you, upon my reputation, 'tis true, and yourself shall confess.
E. Know. (aside) You must bring me to the rack first.
Bob. Observe me, judicially, sweet sir ; they had planted me three demi-culverins just in the mouth of the breach ; now, sir,
as we were to give on, their master-gunner (a man of no mean skill and mark, you must think) confronts me with his linstock, ready to give fire; I spying his intendment, discharged my petronel in his bosom, and with these single arms, my poor rapier, ran violently upon the Moors that guarded the ordnance, and put 'em pell-mell to the sword.
Wel. To the sword! To the rapier, captain.
E. Know. O, it was a good figure observed, sir : but did you all this, captain, without hurting your blade ?
Bob. Without any impeach o' the earth ; you shall perceive, sir (shows his rapier). It is the most fortunate weapon that ever rid on poor gentleman's thigh. Shall I tell you, sir ? You talk of Morglay, Excalibar, Durindana, or so; tut! I lend no credit to that is fabled of 'em : I know the virtue of mine own, and therefore I dare the boldlier maintain it.
EAUMONT and Fletcher, two gentlemen who wrote some admirable plays, but now much neglected, because often too free and licentious, were once considered
far superior to Shakespeare, especially in depicting the manners of gentlemen. But this was in Dryden's time, when English morals were in their de cadence. They are also easily to be recalled as writing in a literary partnership, and always to be associated throughout succeeding ages. Often licentious in mere language, their characters are, nevertheless, noble, elevated, pure; and, as they were perhaps inspired by Shakespeare, so they seem to have caught from him much of his free, open, and generous character. They were, says a critic, “gentlemen who wrote for the stage as gentlemen have rarely done before or since ;" and the sneer at our dramatists is not wholly undeserved. They wrote conjointly, and sometimes separately, no BEAUMONT AND FLETCHER. 155
less than fifty-two plays; and Shakespeare himself is said-on the title-page of the first edition—to have assisted Fletcher in one, “The two Noble Kinsmen.” Although now seldom acted, there is such pure poetry, such an idealised truth of character, such quickness, gentleness, brilliancy, and playfulness of thought, such touches of sweet pathos, and so much airy liveliness in their dialogue, that their plays are charming reading; and when reading them we can only sigh (if we take them to be true pictures) for the degenerate stupidity of our times, when the idiocy--selfish and wicked as it is--of the leading character is found to be diverting, and the expression not of a chaste and noble love, but of cold calculation as to winning a heavy bet or catching an heiress, forms the brilliant dialogue of a modern comedy. In Charles II.'s days Beaumont and Fletcher's plays, more generally pleasing, but not so highly pitched as those of Shakespeare, were so much more popular that Dryden relates that two of theirs were acted to one of his. Writers of the romantic drama, they have left us few comic characters which survive as pictures of English men and women ; but they no doubt helped to give us that taste for the moderately sad, delicate, and pathetic kind of writing which yet survives in our romances and novels.
“The Elder Brother” is justly esteemed as one of the best comedies in the works of our twin dramatists ; and the scene which the reader is about to peruse, is the finest in the play. It should be premised that Charles, the elder brother, being wholly given up to study, consents to sign away his birthright in favour of the younger son, Eustace, who is to be married to the fair Angelica