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dramas, consequently, which have been rescued from oblivion, it is generally impossible to determine precisely the date of their composition; and this circumstance occasions great perplexity in the critical estimation of Shakspeare's dramas. Collier, indeed, in his elaborate History of the English Drama, has done good service to the cause, but even he, with all the means at his command, and with all his diligence, has not always been able to arrive at a precise and well authenticated conclusion.
The first to be mentioned here is Thomas Kyd, apparently a contemporary of John Lyly. To this writer English critics unanimously ascribe, and with good reason, indeed, the above mentioned “Jeronimo," and the “Spanish Tragedy," a favourite and popular piece, which, having first appeared probably in 1588, was again successfully introduced in 1602, with many additions from the pen of Ben Jonson. Besides this production, all that we know of him with certainty is, that he translated “ Cornelia” from the French of Garnier. The further ascription to him of the “Soliman and Perseda," the old "Taming of a Shrew," and the old “ Hamlet,” rests either on mere presumption or false criticism. Ile died in poverty and wretchedness, in 1595.
Of greater importance was Jolin Lyly (born in Kent, 1551, proceeded to the degree of B.A. in 1573, to that of M.A. 1576, and died about 1598), whose “Euphues, the Anatomie of Wit," appeared, according to Collier, 1579, and on account of its polished, often artificial, playful, but tasteless language, the fineness and ornateness of the thought, and of a reasoning by no means profound, yet for the most part highly plausible, decked out with far-fetched similes and allusions, quickly gained a wide and favourable reception, especially at court (Drake, i. 441). The same qualities served also to recommend his dramatic compositions, of which it is certain six appeared prior to 1589. Of these the greater number were in prose; one piece only, “The Maid's Metamorphosis,” being in rhyme, and another, "The Woman in the Moon," in blank verse. His nine comedies (of which six were printed) were all written for court entertainments, as the composition abundantly proves, being full of recondite allusions to the Queen and her suite, to the petty incidents and secret anecdotes of the court, and display a certain cleverness and wit, but have no pretence to poetical merit. Their claim to rank as comedies is drawn exclu. sively from certain ludicrous details, which are not unfrequently the merest absurdities and platitudes, and does not rest on that true comic view of things in general, from which alone comedy derives her poetic dignity and profound significance. This at once explains how it happened that Lyly, in spite of the great simplicity of his plots generally, has nevertheless so gravely offended against the laws of dramatic composition, that in several of his plays the comic parts have not the slightest connection with the proper action and the rest of the fable. Seven of his pieces are on mythological subjects, or at least may be justly styled ideal pastorals, since in them, heathen deities, nymphs, &c. take a prominent share in the action. This fact would alone dispose us to feel surprise at Malone's assertion, that Lyly comes nearer than any other dramatist before Shakspeare to a truthful delineation of character and life. In fact, in such mythological pieces there could be no place for the depicting of character, strictly speaking; and although his best, and probably oldest, piece, “ Alexander and Campaspe,” contains some well-conceived and well-executed characters (particularly “Diogenes and Alexander"); yet even with respect to these, the praise seems extravagant, when we think of Greene, Marlowe, and many others. More deserving of approbation is his invention, which in some pieces is both ingenious and graceful. On the whole, Lyly was a learned, elegant, and witty writer, a bel esprit in the manner of the sixteenth century, but no poet. Accordingly, his pieces can by no means be called popular. Nevertheless, his style of writing exercised so great an influence on the language of the age, that whatever in Shakspeare's diction appears far-fetched and affected,—his sharp-shooting, for instance, with antithesis and sententious pomp of phrase, his play of words, and occasionally artificial wit,—are to be laid to Lyly's account, and to be regarded as the echo of the prevailing tone of his day. That Shakspeare studied Lyly's pieces is clear, both from certain maxims and witticisms, which he must have borrowed from him, and from certain passages in which he has closely imitated him. Such passages, however, are only occasional, and therefore while Tieck is right in maintaining that the commentators of Shakspeare have much to learn from Lyly, the assertion of Schlegel is equally true, that Shakspeare himself can have learned little if any thing from him.
George Peele, whose principal work, “David and Bathseba,” appeared in 1590, but who, as early as 1585, was the city poet of London, and died 1598, and his contemporary, Thomas Lodge (born about 1556, died after 1616), composed for the most part in the same style and character with Marlowe and Greene, whose friendship they enjoyed. The one, however, was not so harmless and graceful in his raillery as Greene, nor the other so bold, vigorous, and affecting as Marlowe. Peele having just left Oxford, first appeared as a writer in 1584, with his "Arraignment of Paris," the mythological piece already mentioned, which was composed for the amusement of the court, and in celebration of Elizabeth's beauty. Written in Lyly's manner, it is, nevertheless, far superior to the best pieces of that author: for Peele possessed all the excellencies of Lyly, in an equal, if not a higher degree, without his faults. Thomas Nash, who flourished about 1589, calls him, with good reason, “primus verborum artifex.” An elegant diction, graceful expression, and an harmonious and flowing versification, are, in fact, his principal merits. On the other hand, in force and depth of thought, in vigour of language and finish of composition, he did not come up to his model, the famous Marlowe; on the plan of whose Tamburlane he wrote (about 1587-8) his Battle of Alcazar, a piece which, as A. Dyce (G. Peele's Works, 2d edit. 1829 vol. i. p. xxvii.) tells us, was erroneously ascribed to Marlowe himself, and whose Edward II. he attempted to rival in his own Edward I.
Not more successful was Lodge with his “Wounds of the Civil War," a tragedy, which appeared shortly after 1586, and likewise owed its origin to Marlowe's “Tamburlane." It was his best piece; and however successful it may be in several of its characters, is still in every other point greatly inferior to Marlowe's best dramas, It was, however, his other friend, Greene, who, besides many excellent pieces, left behind him a still greater number, negligently and hastily written, that Lodge chiefly took for his model, and him he surpassed in many respects. Lodge, for instance, exhibits a profounder, more vigorous, and better sustained characterisation, and a more innate sense of nature and propriety, against both of
which Greene too frequently offended. The piece which he wrote in conjunction with Greene, “The Looking Glass for London and England,” is, however, a feeble composition of a satirical tendency, and seems to have been intended as an answer to the attacks on the Stage by the Puritans. Lastly, Thomas Nash, a friend likewise of Greene, and subsequently also of Marlowe, and probably somewhat younger than both, was a writer of satires rather than dramas. The only work, “Summer's Last Will and Testament," still extant, that was written by him without assistance, can merely be looked upon as a piece of dramatic pleasantry designed for the amusement of the Court, and not as a drama in the strict sense of the term. The “ Isle of Dogs," which appeared in 1597, and caused the imprisonment of its author, is now lost. The tragedy, · Dido, Queen of Carthage,” in which he had the co-operation of Marlowe, shows sufliciently in those parts which apparently come from his pen, by the monotony of the versification, the flatness and feebleness of the language, and the triteness of the thoughts, that he was by no means qualified to measure himself with Marlowe, whose style, however, he laboured to imitate. These three poets, in short, stand nearly midway between Kyd and Lyly on the one hand, and Greene and Marlowe on the other; while Nash, by liis satirical bearing, forms, at the same time, the transition point to Ben Jonson's manner.
Greene and Marlowe alone remain, then; for a more detailed notice of all the older dramatists these two are pre-eminently worthy of being named along with Shakspeare.
The date of Robert Greene's birth cannot be precisely fixed, but there can be no doubt of its falling between 1550 and 1560. Descended from a family of Norfolk, he had received a good education, and in early life, with some youthful companions, travelled through Italy and Spain. In these travels, as he himself mournfully confesses, (in a moral work, entitled “The Repentance of Robert Greene,'') he abandoned himself to the wildest excesses, which weakened his powers both of body and mind, and totally destroyed whatever little of energy and self-controul, of steadiness and application, his otherwise weak and unstable character might have possessed, and which we miss so completely both in his poetry and conduct. He was never able to fix and concentrate his powers, or to condense his volatile being into any definite form. Upon his return home, by his learning and talents he soon acquired the degree of B. A., and some years later that of M. A. (1583). Immediately after this he proceeded to the metropolis, and here again, as we learn from his own confession, led a dissolute and disorderly life. Subsequently he seems to have entered the Church, and to have had a cure in Essex, which, however, he very soon resigned, probably from the now rooted fondness for an unrestrained life of adventure, which led him to adopt first of all the profession of actor, and then to attempt dramatic composition. These pursuits, however, he soon abandoned, out of love for a beautiful and amiable maiden, whom he married, returned to the country, where he lived for a while in quiet happiness. From a pamphlet, entitled “Never too Late,” which appeared in 1590, and in which he describes his own life and fortunes—if it were not, as Tieck justly remarks, difficult to know how much is to be taken for fact and how much for poetical invention,--we are led to infer that he did not long continue in this peace and quietude. His wife, perhaps by her moralising and fault-finding, disgusted him; at all events a journey to London, and the light arts of a courtezan, were sufficient to awaken his dormant licentiousness. Shortly afterwards, in 1586, he was again in London, where for six years his life was one of the wildest excess --at one time living in the greatest luxury-at another sunk in the most abject poverty; now lashing himself with bitter repentance and self-contempt, and at the next giving way to the gay and delusive dreams of a lively fancy. Such was Greene's miserable career previous to 1592, in which year he died, in wretchedness and penury, of a disease contracted by his own irregularities.
Greene was a prolific and versatile author. Besides dramas, he was a writer of novels and poetical pieces, especially of instructive or moral works, which were occasionally in a semi-poetic and romantic form, and of several pamphlets of a satirical character. In all he displayed no common powers of mind-great sensibility and tenderness of feeling, a quick and lively fancy, a graceful vein of humour and raillery, but without profundity of genius, or deep and solid feelings, without fixed opinions in religion and morals,