English Theatre 1520-1578
miércoles, 10 de octubre de 2012
English theatre 1520-1578
By Émile Legouis
I. Humanism in the theatre.
English dramatic writing produced no masterpiece in this period, yet felt its way along the most various paths, and acquired an experience without which the Elizabethan drama would have been impossible. It partook both of the past which had survived, and of the future for which it was preparing.
The miracle plays were performed almost till the end, although, since the Protestants looked askance at them, they gradually lost ground, and the cycles of the different towns disappeared, one after another, as the Reformation advanced. In any case, these plays did no more than prolong their existence. They no longer changed: they merely persisted in the form which they had assumed in the fifteenth century. The interesting point is that they still had a large public, and that dramatic innovations did not supplant them, but were introduced side by side with them.
Moralities, on the other hand, did not only continue to be much appreciated, but were also modified and renewed in accordance with circumstances. Those produced until about 1520 were Christian and no more. They may be said to have had neither place nor date. But the moralities came to be impregnated with the spirit of the Renascence or the Reformation. Two distinct groups of them appeared, which voiced respectively humanist and Protestant tendencies.
Tedious though was the morality Magnificence, written by John Skelton about 1516, it yet showed a new standpoint. It did not merely, like its predecessors, represent the struggle between Heaven and Hell. Skelton, who seems to have aimed at warning Henry VIII against mad extravagance, does not deal wih the great problem of Christianity, but enforces a particular moral lesson. His hero, Magnificence, is brought to ruin by a succession of bad counsellors, and would kill himself were he not saved by the intervention of Good Hope, Circumspection, Perseverance, and others. This is the first specimen of a laicized morality.
In its two successors the spirit of the Renascence is much more clearly marked. They are inspired neither by the usual moral lesson nor by religious faith, but by the love of knowledge. Manifestly they were born in academic circles in which knowledge is the ideal goal and in which the devil is named Ignorance.
The morality of The Four Elements, which was printed in 1519, and of which fragments are extant, is very curious. It is contemporary with More's Utopia. Like More, the author is under the influence of the tales of Amerigo Vespucci. He teaches geography, cosmography, almost all the sciences known to his time. The Messenger, who speaks the prologue, discourses gravely on science and deplores the lack of learned books in England and English. Only frivolous books, he says, are written in English, and only the rich man is esteeemed wise in England. Yet true wisdom is in knowledge, in knowledge of God who can be known only by His works, and therefore in the study of nature. The play leaves theology on one side. The subject is the instruction of the child Humanity, son of 'Natura Naturata'. He is entrusted to Studious Desire, but his progress is interrupted by the temptations of Sensual Appetite, who takes him to the tavern. The child has interpreted ill the works of Nature, who bade him use his senses. Only at the end of the play does he again show a taste for knowledge.
Sensual Appetite here plays the part of clown, as does his friend Ignorance, who detests philosophers and astronomers and boasts of his own power, saying that he is mightier than the king of England or France, that he is the greatest lord alive, and has more than five hundred thousand servants in England. He addresses the audience directly:
They be the most part my servants all,
And love principally
Disports, as dancing, singing,
Toys, trifling, laughing, jesting;
For cunning they set not by.
A geography lesson produces a burst of patriotism. Studious Desire instructs Humanity that the earth is round; Experience diplays a globe, enumerates the countries she has visited, dwelling on America, and deplores that Spaniards, Portuguese, and Frenchmen have gone farther than Englishmen:
If that they that be Englishmen
Might have been the first of all
That there should have taken possession.
She would have wished all these countries to have been civilized and converted to religion by the English.
A like ardour to instruct fills John Redford's pedagogic morality, The Play of Wyt and Science, which dates from the end of the reign of Henry VIII. Reason, after the manner of a highborn father, wishes to marry his daughter Science to Human Wit, the son of Nature. It matters not that Wit is neither well born nor rich:
To love each other, strawe for the patches
Of worldly mucke! syence hath inowghe
For them both to lyve.
But Wit for long lacks wisdom. In his youthful eagerness to know he imprudently attacks Tediousness and is saved only just in time by Honest Recreation. She, unfortunately, does not satisfy him and he leaves her and falls asleep in the lap of Idleness. Without knowing it he has become a fiool, when, at last, he reaches the presence of Science, who repels him for an ignorant suitor. But in a mirror he sees himself as he is and is disgusted. After a term of chastisement and hard labour, he again attacks Tediousness, this time with a good sword, and slays him. Science, who has witnessed the encounter from the summit of Mount Parnassus, now accepts her destined spouse, first warning him:
For, sure, ye were better then wythout me!
This is an ingenious and well-arranged morality, which is pervaded by strong rationalist conviction. It resumes the spirit of the Renascence well, and bears witness to the appetite for knowledge which caused schools and colleges to be born in the land. The comic element is supplied by an episode in which Ignorance is heard blundering thorugh a lesson in the alphabet given him by his mother, Idleness The mistress, who represents the old somnolent methods of teaching, is no less ridiculous than her idiot pupil.
2. The Reformation on the Stage. Lyndsay. John Bale.
Very early, the Reformation attempted to take possession of the morality and use it for its own ends. Passion, inevitably unjust and sometimes brutal, gave life to more than one Protestant morality play. They appeared in the north and in the south. The first in date was written by the Scot Sir David Lyndsay, whose reforming zeal we have already seen.
His Satire of the Thrie Estaitis was played in 1540 at Linlithgow before the King of Scotland, the bishops, and the people. It is as political as it is religious. The three estates are the nobles, the clergy, and the merchants, and all three are pilloried together, censured for giving too much ear to Sensuality, Wantonness, and Deceit. The grieevances which John the Common Weal, the man of the people, has against them are just enough, and it is pleasant to see him obtain the needed reforms with the help of Good Counsel and Correction.
Lyndsay's special attack is against the Church. Dame Veritie, who desires access to the king, finds her way barred by the lords spiritual, scared at her advent. An abbot wishes to cast her into prison, and a parson recommends that she be put to death, under cover of the king's momentary subjection to Dame Sensuality. The same priest summons Veritie to declare by what right she is addicted to preaching. He threatens her with the stake, and when she refuses to retract, Flattery, a monk, exclaims:
Out, walloway! This is the New Test'ment,
In Englisch toung and printit in England:
herisie, herisie! fire, fire! incontinent.
In a comic interlude the social satire is dominant. Pauper recounts his misadventures. He used to keep his old father and mother by his labour and owned a mare and three cows. When his partents died the landlord took the mare as a heriot; the vicar seized the best cow at his father's, and the second best at his mother's, death. The third cow went the same way when his wife died of grief, when also the vicar's clerk bore off the uppermost clothes of the family. There is nothing left for Pauper to do but to beg. The parish priest has refused him Easter communion because he no longer pays tithes. He has only one farthing in his pocket with which to plead for justice. A Pardoner arrives, boasting of his relics and insulting the New Testament, which sells to the injury of his trade. With his last farthing Pauper buys a thousand years' indulgence, but when he asks to see his purchase a fight ensues and the relics fall into the gutter.
These passages give an idea of the violence of the attack and of the life it imparted to the morality.
The Protestants of England were no less ferocious. Their most famous dramatic champion was Bishop John Bale (1495-1563), who even attempted to turn the fixed and traditional miracle plays to Protestant uses. Under the name of tragedies, comedies, and interludes, he wrote scenes in harmony with the reformed faith, taking them from sacred history and principally from the life of Christ. But he gave the chief of his efforts to morality plays, combined with history which was sometimes contermporary, as in his Proditiones Papistarum and Super utroque Regis Coniugio. The most interesting of his dramatic essays is, however, his allegory King Johan, in which he recasts history to his liking. He makes of the deplorable John a great king, hated and calumniated by the clergy. For John had been bold enough to rebel against Rome, and all his faults, crimes, and cowardice are therefore wiped out. He is represented as a man misunderstood, a noble victim, the first Protestant. This play merits a particular place in the history of the theatre. It is the half-open chrysalis, the morality play whence the historical drama is about to emerge. Real and allegorical characters are mingled in it. John is betrayed by Dissimulation and threatened by Sedition. Moreover, abstractions are changed in the course of the play into living beings. Sedition, for instance, becomes Cardinal Stephen Langton, Usurped Power the Pope. This is a travesty of history and yet history, and, through the medium of another and Elizabethan work on the same reign, it was to leave its mark on Shakespeare's King John.
3. Heywood's Interludes. 'Calisto and Meliboea'
John Heywood's (1497?-1580) interludes or farces, written under Henry VIII, cannot be called Catholic answers to Protestant attacks since they preceded the offensive of the Reformers. Two of them were printed as early as 1533. Heywood, a good Catholic and the friend of Thomas More, wrote in the medieval tradition, in the spirit of the fabliaux which certainly did not spare churchmen. He was original in avoiding morality plays and in having no purpose but to amuse. he has no notion of ecclesiastical or theological controversy. His interludes are mere comic dialogues, scenes from fabliaux sometimes modelled on the French. But he is of his own nation almost the only representative of this school of dramatic writing. The four interludes which he certainly wroter are controversies in burlesque. In Witty and Witless, James and John discuss whether it is better to be a fool or a wise man; they are echoing the Dyalogue du fol et du sage performed at the court of Louis XII. In Love, an unloved lover and his unloving mistress seek, each of them, to prove himself the more miserable, while another couple, a lover beloved and a man who is neither loved nor a lover, dispute the right to be called the happier. In The Play of the Weather, ten characters demand of Jupiter that he sends them weather suited to their needs or desires, and the god finally decides that each of them shall be satisfied in turn. In The Four P's, four characters, a Palmer, a Pardoner, a Potycary, and a Pedlar, discuss which of them shall tell the biggest lie. The pilgrim declares that in all his travels he has never seen a woman lose patience, and the others themselves allow that he has won the prize.
These plays are, it is seen, without plot, but Heywood puts life into his characters and expresses himself with a drollery which recalls Chaucer. There is a grotesque description of hell equal to the Sompnour's in the prologue to his Tale. Good humour reigns everywhere. Yet these writings are hardly dramas. If, as is probable, Heywood also wrote The Pardoner and the Friar and Johan Johan, the story of a husband deceived by his wife, Tyb, and Sir Johan, the parish priest, he came much nearer to farce in them. Their characters and incidents conform excellently to the old comic tradition, and their dramatization could not be more vigorous. In these two pieces Heywood was inspired by French originals, Farce nouvelle d'un pardonneur, d'un triacleur et d'une tavernière and Farce de Pernet qui va au vin. Although he wrote under Henry VIII he never even suggests the Renascence.
Not, that is, unless the comic monologue Thersites, played about 1537, may be ascribed to him on the evidence of style. Its subject and its allusions are loaded with classical reminiscences. The play is a free adaptation from the Latin of Ravisius Textor, or Jean Tixier de Ravisé, professor of rhetoric in Navarre College in Paris. Antiquity supplied the material for this farce, which had many analogies with the Franc Archer de Bagnolet, and which brougth the braggart on to the English stage for the first time.
Another novelty isolated in the reign of Henry VIII was the adaptation of the famous Spanish play Celestina which was printed in 1530 as Calisto and Meliboea. The English playwright has kept only the first four of the sixteen acts of his original. He has changed the long crowded drama with its tragic conclusion to a romantic comedy having a moral and cheerful ending. The character of the procuress Celestina, the descendant of Dame Siriz and the prototype of Macette, is indeed the same in the English as in the original version, but before she throws Meliboea into the arms of Calisto, the girl's father intervenes to save her on the brink of the abyss. Thus the didactic instinct cuts short a romantic drama.
4. Progress of the theatre after 1550.
There was no further change in the first half of the century, but from 1550 onwards innovations came thick and fast.
It is about the middle of the century that the formation of troops of professional players, in addition to the amateurs who performed in the miracle plays, can be clearly traced. In more than one school and more than one college of the universities there were performances especially of classical pieces, but usually they were written by the masters and acted by the pupils. But the people of the provinces as well as those of the capital wished to be amused, and they were no longer satisfied with the miracle plays and moralities. Interludes, otherwise farces, were in great demand and were provided by professional actors. These were at first poor wretches, always under suspicion, who were harried by the authorities as rogues and vagabonds. Before they could be left in piece they had to obtain the patronage of a magnate, a baron at the least. There was no lack of such willing protectors who appreciated their services. The first company to obtain letters patent was Leicester's, in 1574, but it was not the first to stroll about the country. In London the players were at the mercy of the civic authorities, who made thir life hard, less perhaps from Puritan prejudice, than because the highly popular darmatic performances constantly gave occasion for disorder, and by attracting a great concourse of spectators might spread the plague, during these years in which it was endemic.
Against the persecuting lord mayor the actors invoked the help of the queen and the magnates. Their chief plea was that they contributed to the queen's pleasure and had need of practice in order to be worthy to play before her. The Privy Council supported them against the City. They first played in London in the courtyards of certain inns. Then, to escape constant annoyance and prohibitions, some of them built, in 1576, their first theatre, outside the city but on its confines, on waste land in Shoreditch.
London meanwhile enjoyed more select peformances. The Inns of Court were a home for the drama of classical tendencies, and a connecting link between the stage of the uniersities and that of the popular theatres.
That the queen might be ensured a supply of worthy actors, the choristers or children of the Chapel Royal were trained to perform plays, both those specially written for them by the master of the Chapel Royal, and others. These bos, both singers and actors, performed for the public as well as for the court, and were for some fifty years the dreaded competitors of adult and professional actors. Their example was followed by other London schools—St. Paul's, Westminster, and Merchant Taylors'—where the most gifted pupils were trained to act and were proud to contribute to the royal diversions. Nothing, nor Puritan disapproval nor civic alarms, could stem the growing passion for the theatre which was felt by the whole nation—nobles, burghers, and people.
(a) THE CLASSICAL INFLUENCE. COMEDY. — The first English comedy of the classical school was Ralph Roister Doister, written about 1533 by Nicholas Udall (1506-56), head master successively of Eton and Westminster. Instead of making the Westminster boys act Plautus, Udall wrote for them, according to the laws of the classical drama, a comedy in five acts, inspired by Latin comic plays. He borrowed some characters from the ancients, but took others straight from English life. The hero Ralph recalls the Pyrgopolinices and Therapontigone of Plautus, is swaggering, stupid, and fatuous as they. Since the play is intended for schoolboys, Udall does not make him a libertine as in the Latin original, but a man really in love, even sentimentally and tearfully amorous. As he endows him also with avarice, so that the keeps an eye on his lady's dowry, the character is confused and lacks versimilitude. Side by side with Ralph appears Merrygreek, a parasite from ancient comedy, but one who plays his part for fun rather than self-interest. It is the parasite about to be changed into Mascarille or Scapin.
Besides these imitated characters, ther is the heroine, Dame Constance, who is courted by Ralph, a worthy and chaste matron annoyed by an impudent fool. When she knows that she has been slandered to the merchant Goodrich, whom she loves honourably, she sends up to heaven a fine prayer for protection. About her are her maids, one young and the other old, real English servans painted with merry realism. In fact, Udall acccpts aid from Plautus, but has no superstitious veneration for him. His aim, like that of his contemporary Rabelais, is to ause, 'for mirth,' he says, 'prolongeth life and causes health'. The principal scenes are that in which Merrygreek reads to Constance a love-letter from Ralph and makes it insulting by revising the punctuation, and that in which the roisterer besieges his mistress's house and, in spite of a warlike disguise—Merrygreek has put a hencoop of his head for a helmet—is routed by the dame and his maids.
Udall may have had a moral purpose—he may have desired to satirize vainglory—but his chief aim was to cause innocent laughter. He has not only produced a frace on the classical model, but has also constructed a plot without expelling gaiety. His verse is stiff and stilted, but his language has savour.
There is even more go in a farce performed about the same time in Christ's College, Cambridge. This takes nothing from antiquity except its distribution in acts and its regular consturction. Subject and characters are completely English and completely rustic. Gammer Gurton's Needle, which was printed in 1575, was written by a Master of Arts of the University, reputedly by a certain William Stevenson. Gammer Gurton loses the needle with which she sews breeches for her servant Hodge. The good-for-nothing Diccon persuades her that it has been stolen by her neighbour, Mother Chatte, and quarrels and recriminations follow. The whole village is turned upside down. The parson intervenes, and Diccon takes advantage of the confusion to steal a ham. Finally Hodge utters a scream and the needl is found sticking in his breeches, and all is thereupon discovered. This story is not refined, but the dialogue has go; the rhymed verse, nimbler than Udall's, lends itself to comic effects; the realism is not adulterated by borrowings from antiquity, and there is an unsurpassable drinking-song, 'Back and side go bare.'
(b) THE CLASSICAL INFLUENCE. TRAGEDY.— But farces, even when they were divided into acts in the ancient manner, could not lead to dramatic progress. They had had a place in the miracle plays. The novelty was all in the isolation of the comic element. It was in tragedy that the national theatre and the theatre of angiquity came together most significantly.
Like the Italians and the French, the English were far more inspired by Seneca than by the Greek theatre. He was a somewhat dangerous model, for his were oratorical tragedies, and it is a moot poin whether they were written to be staged or to be declaimed. He used again the mythological themes of the Greeks, but used them, like a romantic, neither for their national sentiment nor because he believed in their legends, but for their brilliancy. He knew nothing of dramatic movement, and there is no action in his tragedies. His characters rarely voice real sentiments: their speeches abound with maxims; thir language is emphatic and lyrical, full of choice metaphors which show great force of oratory and real subtlety in analysis. Long monologues alternate with passages made up of short question and answers, each crowded into a single line. Seneca's political allusions are frequent and he often attacks tyrants. Most of these characteristics recur in the work of his imitators, but what they have taken from him by preference is certain of his expedients, sometimes his choruses and more often his phantom who has the duty of explanation. Above all, they have been impressed by the atrocity of his subjects, and have learnt from him to associate the idea of tragedy with that of crime, nearly always monstrous crime. Agamemnnon and the horrors of the Atrides, Oedipus, Medea, Phaedra, and, above all, Thyestes and the horrible banquet of Atreus, led to tragedies of atrocious vengeance like Titus Andronicus and The Duchess of Malfi.
Five of Seneca's plays were separately translated and perhaps performed between 1559 and 1566, before the translation, published in 1581, of his Ten Tragedies. As early as 1562 Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton produced the tragedy of Gorboduc, or Ferrex and Porrex, which was imitated from him although it had an independence. Sackville was the author of the Induction to the Mirror for Magistrates and the best poet of his day, and both playwrights were lawyers and politicians. Their tragedy was given in one of the Inns of Court.
Seneca's influence is apparent in the uninterrupted seriousness of the play; in the sustained nobility of the style; in the almost abstract character of the scenes, where all the action falls to messengers and to confidants, male and female; in the abundant speechifying, and also in the sanguinary plot. King Gorboduc abdicates in favour of his two sons, Ferrex and Porrex, who, like another Eteocles and Polynices, at once take up arms against each other. Ferrex is slain, and their mother, whose favourite son he is, kills her other son, Porrex, the slayer. The people are angered, rise in rebellion, and put father and mother to death. Anarchy, usurpation, and the death of the usurper ensue.
In spite of these piled-up crimes, the play is cold and lacks movement and drama. Its authors were better fitted to express ideas than to put life in characters. They had a didactic aim, for they wished to depict the misfortunes of a kingdom to which the succession is uncertain—a constant preoccupation of Elizabethan politicians—and the horrors which accompany civil war and result from anarchy. Their tragedy would assuredly have interested Corneille had he known it. It is Seneca after the style of lawyers and members of Parliament. The authors have a certain originality because of the didactic sense which, in spite of everything, connects Gorboduc with the moralities, and because of the patriotic feeling which made these young humanists choose thir subject from the annals of Great Britain, as the subject of King Lear, with which it has analogies, was thence taken. They stand less apart from the national tradition than at first appears from their superficial resemblance to Seneca, that is, from their use of choruses, and their cult of gloomy effects combined with their rejection of the spectacular. But the symmetrical plan of their scenes—Ferrex and Porrex consulting thir good and their bad adviser in turn, advisers who are almost as much abstractions as vice and virtue—betrays an artless simplification inspired by morality plays rather than Seneca.
That the moral of the play may be the more distinct, and perhaps also that spectators unused to such heights of seriousness may be diverted, each act opens with a pantomime in which the lesson it conveys is illustrated.
This is therefore no mere academic tragedy. It is a work which stands first in a line of succession, the first unrelieved English tragedy and therefore the play which led to Kyd's Spanish Tragedie. It brought the idea of fatality on to the English stage. In spite of its great defects it established a high artistic level. Finally, it was the first play in which the blank verse formed under the influence of antiquity was used. The metre which Surrey had invented for his translation of Virgil served Sackville and Norton when they emulated Seneca. They handled it forcibly and with dignity, but were incapable of giving it the ductility necessary for the stage. Twenty-five years were to pass before their inititative was followed triumphantly. Their merit is that, though they did not reach success, they made the attempt.
(c) VARIOUS INFLUENCES.— Gorboduc was insignificant, but appeared in isolation. Round this play there were many tentative efforts and importations from abroad, all of them pointing English drama along different paths. It has been possible to group several plays under the title 'Prodigal Son Series'. This time the prototype was a work by a Neo-Latinist, the Dutchman Gnaphaeus whose Acolastus had been translated by John Palsgrave in 1540. He was imitated with great talent and with original additions in Misogonus, performed about 1560. The author, uncertainly identified as Thomas Richardes, wrote a strongly constructed and well-arranged play, enlivened by frankly comic scenes. The morality Nice Wanton, which appearedabout 1560, connects with the same series and is a commentary on the adage 'Spare the rod and spoil the child'. In 1575 George Gascoigne produced his Glass of Government, imitated both from Acolastus and from the Rebels of Macropedius.
Geroge Gascoigne, ever in quest of novelty, is the best witness to the diversity of the influences operative at this time and of the sources whence plays derived. Besides The Glass of Government he wrote The Supposes, a prose translation of a comedy by Ariosto, and Jocasta, a tragedy which purports to be a translation from the Phoenissae of Euripides, but is in truth a rearrangement of the Greek tragedy by the Italian Lodovico Dolce.
Italian influence is yet more apparent in a free adaptation by an unknown author of the Florentine Grazzini's La Spiritata, under the title The Bugbears (1561), in which a son obtains three thousand crowns from a misely father by frightening him at night with noises attributed to ghosts, and is thus enabled to marry his mistress. Other plays inspired by Italian comedies also appeared, but only their names have been preserved.
(d) FORMATION OF THE NATIONAL DRAMA.— Each of these classical, neo-classical, and Italian influences had its part in blazing the track to the English national drama, which absorbed the most diverse elements. But there is a group of plays then acted which were not adaptations but truly English, and although they have weaknesses and an element of the ridiculous, they reveal the national drama as already almost a reality. They conform to that broad type which was finally adopted for drama and was followed by Shakespeare and his contemporaries.
Dramas of this type still partook of the morality plays, at least in right of certain characters, but they tended more and more to stage the scenes of an episode of history or a romance, and they were wont to relieve tragedy or romance by scenes of broad comedy, more or less skilfully related to the principal plot, thus observing the great tradition of the miracle plays.
The most striking of these plays are Appius and Virginia (1551?), Damon and Pytias (1564), Horestes (1567), Gismond of Salerno (1567), Cambyses (1569), and Promos and Cassandra (1578).
Three are obviously connected with the moralities. Like Bale's King John, they mingle abstractions and real characters. Horestes is entitled 'A Newe Enterlude of Vice Conteyninge the Historye of Horestes' (Orestes). Appius and Virginia, of which the ridiculously emphatic language remained dear to Shakespeare's Pistol—'The furies fell of Limbo lake'—dramatizes the well-known story of Virginius, who slew his daughter to save her from the wicked judge Appius. Appius is impelled by the vice called Haphazard, and Conscience and Justice appear to him. Homely and comic scenes alternate with tragedy. There is a curious mingling of all the earlier dramatic elements with a classic theme.
Cambyses is yet more significant. The author is usually identified as Thomas Preston, Master of Arts of King's College, Cambridge, a learned man who became master of Trinity Hall. The marked and yet artless bad taste of the style has thrown doubt on this authorship, yet the play shows signs of having been written by a humanist, for Herodotus is followed step by step, and there are many mythological reminiscences. The full title, as printed, is very characteristic. A Lamentable Tragedie mixed full of plesant mirth containing the Life of Cambises, King of Persia, from the beginning of his kingdome unto his Death, his one good deede of execution, after that, many wicked deedes and tyrannous murders committed by and thorugh him, and last of all, his odious death by Gods Justice appointed.
Preston's method is that of the authors of the miracle plays. He cuts up the story from Herodotus into scenes as they did the Scriptures. Not the whole fo the story is in his play, but nearly all of it. He makes no attempt to weave a plot or by simplification to give unity to characters. Cambyses is represented in all the diversity and chronological incoherence of his actions. He begins well by ordering the execution of a prevaricating delegate, then, impulsive undr the influence of wine, commits a series of atrocious crimes, almost all of them instantanously, and passes immediatly from the exaltation of love at first sight to passionate and murderous fury against his new-made bride. The playwritht, by refusing to make any selection among the deeds of his hero, has rendered him lifelike and complex enough, has shown his double physical and moral nature and given him a temperament. There is here a character which ought already to be called Shakespearian.
Cambyses is not always on the stage, but gives place to buffoons. We can discern, in the raw, the expedients of a playwright who, chiefly by varying his scenes, appeals to a heterogenous public, caters for coarse as for other tastes in order to reach all his audience.
Allegorical mingle with historical characters, the better to bring out the moral, the most important abstraction being the vice called Ambidexter, whose part it is both to impel to evil and to ensure the punishment of the guilty. Ambidexter is a cynic who takes pleasure in discovering and encouraging human perversity, and revels in the sight of foolishness. In his chuckle we seem already to hear Iago, even more Gloucester (Richard III) winning Queen Anne's heart by false protestations of love. This is the sardonic, diabolical, and sharp-sighted sinner, bad all through, without a trace of conscience, snapping his fingers at prejudices, his philosophy a fundamental atheism.
The connection of the buffoonery with the tragedy is weak, yet exists and is already a little Shakespearean. Thus, Cambyses has just decided to make war on Egypt when three soldiers enter, rejoicing in the prospective expedition, counting on slaughter and plunder. The truth, as undoubted in the days of Cambyses as in the sixteenth century, is illustrated that war is not the exclusive concern of princes and generals, but is as much the common soldier's business as the king's. Similarly Shakespeare, when he deals with Falstaff's enrolments, shows the seamy side of the glorious profession of arms, adopting the point of view he keeps in all his popular scenes, whether English or Roman. It is the tradition of the miracle plays combined with that of the morality plays.
In Cambyses all the education of the plot is spectacular. The murders are not recounted, as in Gorboduc, but the playwright carefully stages them in full. He reproduces the execution of Sisamnes, who is beheaded and scalped—the artless stage directions stipulate for a false skin—his scalp being afterwards pulled down over his ears. On the stage, Cambyses, to prove that he is not drunk, pierces the son of Praxaspe full in the heart with an arrow.
At the same time, this author carries pathos to the highest point. He puts into the mouth of the dying child of Praxaspe touching complaints which bring tears perforce. The scene recalls little Isaac ready to go to the stake in the mystery of Abraham, and anticipates the child Arthur in Shakespeare's King John seeking to move Hubert who has been ordered to burn out his eyes. But Preston reaches a yet higher degree of pathos. He sends a mother to mourn over the body of her son, and causes Cambyses to have the child's heart cut out that the father may know it was wounded in the very centre. After this, how could an audience be satisfied with only hearsay of butchery, messengers' tales?
To compensate for these episodes, Preston gives his public an open-air scene, a garden in which a fair lady and a lord stroll along the paths while the lord supplies the absence of scenery by describing the landscape and the flowers. Thus a breath of fresh air blows through the horrors of the melodrama.
This play reveals on examination all the characteristics of English drama of the great period. It lacks only two things, genius and style, or rather, perhaps, only one, genius made manifest in style.
The awkwardness of Preston's writing as so complete and his bombast so ridiculous that his play, after a long term of popularity, became the laughing-stock of succeeding dramatists. Shakespeare amused himself by parodying it in Falstaff, who says, when he wishes to use fine language, 'I will do it in King Cambyses' vein.' Preston's rhetoric is in the highest degree both frantic and artless. Some of his metaphorical epithets have the most ludicrous effet, as when a character speaks of her 'christall eyes', or the mother of little Prexaspe of her 'velvet paps.' Moreover, the playwright is so little at his ease with the fourteen-syllabled rhymed lines which he uses for tragic passages, that he mutlates grammar by the suppression of articles or by most astonishing inversions in the very places in which he aims at simple statements of fact.
Undoubtedly the great lack was of a metre fitted to drama, a ductile line which would leave freedom of movement to the playwright. Failing this, verse might have been relinquished for prose. in verse, the attempt made in Gorboduc had not yet been pursued, and prose had been tried only by Gascoigne in his Supposes. English drama made decided progress when a flexible metre had been adopted, more or less generally, and when prose was used with increasing frequency. As for the remaining and too prominent traces of the morality play, it was not difficult to get rid of them. Even in Cambyses they appeared only in the name of characters. To eliminate them from that play it would have been necessary only to rebaptize a few supernumeraries including Ambidexer, who were still called after abstractions. Richard Edwards, the author of Damon and Pythias, a far better if possibly less significant play than Cambyses, contrived to do without abstractions altogether. He produced a tragi-comedy which, save for its versification, would not have seemed out of place had it appeared among a number of others of the great period. The same praise could be given to Whetstone, who in 1578 wrote Promos and Cassandra, from which Shakespeare derived Measure for Measure, that gloomy comedy. Hitherto all had been experiment, but the advent of the undeniably great works was very near.