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MIDDLE AND LATTER PART OF THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY.
EXCLUDING from our view the productions of the last fifty or sixty years, as not yet ripe for the verdict of history, we may affirm that our national literature, properly so called, that is, whatever of our literature by right of its poetic shape or spirit is to be held as peculiarly belonging to the language and the country, had its noonday in the period comprehending the last quarter of the sixteenth and the first of the seventeenth century. But a splendid afternoon flush succeeded this meridian blaze, which may be said to have lasted for another half century, or longer. Down almost to the Revolution, or at least to the middle of the reign of Charles II., our higher literature continued to glow with more or less of the coloured light and the heart of fire which it had acquired in the age of Elizabeth and James. Some of the greatest of it indeed- as the verse of Milton and the prose poetry of Jeremy Taylor—was not given to the world till towards the close of the space we have just indicated. But Milton, and Taylor, and Sir Thomas Browne, and Cudworth, and Henry More, and Cowley, the most eminent of our English writers in the interval from the Restoration to the Revolution (if we except Dryden, the founder of a new school, and Barrow, whose writings, full as they are of thought, have not much of the poetical or untranslatable) were all of them, it is worthy of observation, born before the close of the reign of James I. Nor
would the stormy time that followed be without its nurture for such minds. A boyhood or youth passed in the days of Shakespeare and Bacon, and a manhood in those of the Great Rebellion, was a training which could not fail to rear high powers to their highest capabilities.
SHIRLEY, AND THE END OF THE OLD DRAMA.
The chief glory of our Elizabethan literature, however, belongs almost exclusively to the time we have already gone over. The only other name that remains to be mentioned to complete our sketch of the great age of the Drama, is that of James Shirley, who was born about the year 1594, and whose first play, the comedy of The Wedding, was published in 1629. He is the author of about forty dramatic pieces which have come down to us. “ Shirley,” observes Lamb, “claims a place among the worthies of this period, not so much for any transcendent genius in himself, as that he was the last of a great race, all of whom spoke nearly the same language, and had a set of moral feelings and notions in common. A new language and quite a new turn of tragic and comic interest came in with the Restoration.”* Of this writer, who survived till 1666, the merits and defects have been well stated, in a few comprehensive words, by Mr. Hallam :—“Shirley has no originality, no force in conceiving or delineating character, little of pathos, and less, perhaps, of wit; his dramas produce no deep impression in reading, and of course can leave none in the memory. But his mind was poetical : his better characters, especially females, express pure thoughts in pure language ; he is never tumid or affected, and seldom obscure ; the incidents succeed rapidly; the personages are numerous, and there is a general animation in the scenes, which causes us to read him with some pleasure.” |
A preface by Shirley is prefixed to the first collection of part of the plays of Beaumont and Fletcher, which, as already mentioned, appeared in 1647. “Now, reader," he says, “ in this tragical age, where the theatre hath been so much outacted, congratulate thy own happiness that, in this silence of the stage, thou hast a liberty to read these inimitable plays,--to dwell and * Specimens, ii. 119.
+ Lit. of Eur. iii. 345.
converse in these immortal groves,—which were only showed our fathers in a conjuring-glass, as suddenly removed as represented.” At this time all theatrical amusements were prohibited ; and the publication of these and of other dramatic productions which were their property, or rather the sale of them to the booksellers, was resorted to by the players as a way of making a little money when thus cut off from the regular gains of their profession; the eagerness of the public to possess the said works in print being of course also sharpened by the same cause. Before the commencement of the civil war there appear to have been no fewer than five different companies of public players in London :-1. That called the King's Company (the same that Shakespeare had belonged to), which acted at the Globe, on the Bankside in Southwark, in the summer, and at the Blackfriars Theatre in winter. 2. The Queen's Players, who occupied the Cockpit (or the Phoenix, as it was also called), in Drury Lane, the origin of the Theatre Royal there. 3. The Prince's Players, who played at the Fortune Theatre, in Golden or Golding Lane, in the parish of St. Giles, Cripplegate. 4. The Salisbury Court Company. 5. The Children of the Revels, who are supposed to have performed at the theatre called the Red Bull, at the upper end of St. John's Street. It had been usual to shut up the theatres when the plague was in London, with the view of preventing such concourses of people as it was thought might help to spread the disease, and on such occasions the players were wont to go down and act in the provinces ; but their absence from town when protracted beyond a few weeks was very impatiently borne. In May, 1636, when the plague was raging with great violence, an order was issued by the privy council, forbidding the representation of all “stage-plays, interludes, shows, and spectacles;" and the prohibition was not removed till the end of February in the following year. In the mean time, it appears, the craving of the public for their customary enjoyment, in one shape if not in another, had tempted certain booksellers to print a number of plays, surreptitiously procured, as we learn from an edict of the lord chamberlain, addressed to the Stationers' Company, in June, 1637, in which he states that complaints to that effect liad been made to him by the players, the legal proprietors of those“ books of comedies, tragedies, interludes, histories, and the like, which they had (for the special service of his majesty and for their own use) bought and provided at very dear