Outlines of English and American Literature The Elizabethan Drama After Shakespeare byLong, William J.
The drama began to decline during Shakespeare's lifetime. Even before his
retirement to Stratford other popular dramatists appeared who catered to a
vulgar taste by introducing more sensational elements into the stage
spectacle. In consequence the drama degenerated so rapidly that in 1642,
only twenty-six years after the master dramatist had passed away,
Parliament closed the theaters as evil and degrading places. This closing
is charged to the zeal of the Puritans, who were rapidly rising into power,
and the charge is probably well founded. So also was the Puritan zeal. One
who was compelled to read the plays of the period, to say nothing of
witnessing them, must thank these stern old Roundheads for their insistence
on public decency and morality. In the drama of all ages there seems to be
a terrible fatality which turns the stage first to levity, then to
wickedness, and which sooner or later calls for reformation.
Among those who played their parts in the rise and fall of the drama, the
chief names are Jonson, Beaumont, Fletcher, Middleton, Webster, Heywood,
Dekker, Massinger, Ford and Shirley. Concerning the work of these
dramatists there is wide diversity of opinion. Lamb regards them, Beaumont
and Fletcher especially, as "an inferior sort of Sidneys and Shakespeares."
Landor writes of them poetically:
They stood around
The throne of Shakespeare, sturdy but unclean.
Lowell finds some small things to praise in a large collection of their
plays. Hazlitt regards them as "a race of giants, a common and noble brood,
of whom Shakespeare was simply the tallest." Dyce, who had an extraordinary
knowledge of all these dramatists, regards such praise as absurd, saying
that "Shakespeare is not only immeasurably superior to the dramatists of
his time, but is utterly unlike them in almost every respect."
We shall not attempt to decide where such doctors disagree. It may not be
amiss, however, to record this personal opinion: that these playwrights
added little to the drama and still less to literature, and that it is
hardly worth while to search out their good passages amid a welter of
repulsive details. If they are to be read at all, the student will find
enough of their work for comparison with the Shakespearean drama in a book
of selections, such as Lamb's Specimens of English Dramatic Poetry
or Thayer's The Best Elizabethan Plays.