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thousands of English households, and a great influence in the development of literature. Some of our greatest poets and prose writers have studied closely its thought, and striven to emulate its strength and simplicity of style. The King James version of the New Testament was based largely upon Tyndale's translation (1525). “If God spare my life,” Tyndale had said to a learned opponent, ere many years I will cause that a boy that driveth the plow shall know more of the Scripture than thou dost." The Bible became the literature of the people, telling to the poorest and plainest the essential things of life in words that all could understand. If we find a typical picture in the press of London shopkeepers and 'prentices crowding the pit of the “Fortune" or the “Globe" theater, we find one no less typical in the eager throngs gathered about the reader of the Bible in the nave of St. Paul's cathedral.
The Complexity of the Age. — We must realize in studying this confused and many-sided period that though politically England was divided into two parties, there were many shades of opinion and much diversity of temperament among the members of each party. We must not think of all Cavaliers as gay and immoral; there were high-minded Royalists, who, though differing with the Puritans on questions of politics and of church government and church doctrine, held to a rule of life that was almost Puritanical in its strictness. Many Churchmen, standing for the king and a strong church organization in the hands of the bishops, led the most pious and genuinely spiritual lives. Nor must we imagine that all Puritans were hard, intolerant, joyless disciplinarians. John Milton, for example, in some respects the greatest of Puritans, was one who loved music and color, and who delighted in the exquisitely
sensuous poetry of Spenser. In short, as we might expect, all the right was not on one side, and honorable and patriotic men were to be found in both parties.
The literature of the early sixteenth century reflects the different moods and tendencies of the age. We have on the one hand the work of the later dramatists and lyric poets, carrying over from the time of Elizabeth something of the ardent enthusiasm and large enjoyment of life which was the most marked feature of the Renaissance; and on the other a religious literature, which finds its highest expression in the great epic poems of Milton, and in the strong, simple, biblical prose of John Bunyan.
LATER ELIZABETHAN LITERATURE
To form any just conception of the commanding genius of Shakespeare, we must measure his altitude by that of his contemporaries. We must imagine him, also, in his daily human relations with men of his own class and calling; we must think of him as an actor among actors, as a theatrical manager, as one of that immortal group at the Mermaid Tavern which included Ben Jonson, Francis Beaumont, and John Fletcher. Some knowledge of Shakespeare's contemporaries or immediate successors in the drama is absolutely necessary if we would see either Shakespeare or his time in proper perspective; but the number of these dramatists is so great, their total production so enormous, that we can consider here only two or three of the most important.
Ben Jonson. — The most commanding figure of this group is BEN JONSON (1573-1637), a big-framed, dominant, aggressive man, who by his own native ability and
sheer strength of personality came to be the literary dictator of his age. He was a poet, scholar, dramatist, satirist, and critic, and in all these capacities greatly influenced his own and subsequent times. A contemporary poet said of him, “He was better versed, and knew more in Greek and Latin, than all the poets in England.”
The foundation of this knowledge was laid by the great scholar Camden, who early befriended Jonson, and of whom the poet always spoke with sincere gratitude. Jonson was, it seems, too poor to go to college, and so was put to the craft of brick-laying. But his independent and ambitious nature early asserted itself, and he went off to the Low Countries to the wars. Not long after, Jonson returned to London, and there grew familiar with the varied life of the streets in all its realistic detail. As he
ambitious of literary fame, he connected himself with the theaters, much, no doubt, as Shakespeare had done before. In 1598 he produced his first play, Every Man in His Humour, in which Shakespeare himself probably acted. It was successful at once, and Jonson rapidly advanced in reputation. He wrote other comedies and several tragedies, which by their cleverness, wit, scholarship, and vigor of mind, won for him a distinguished position. He also wrote many masques for the entertainment of the court, or in celebration of great marriages in the families of the nobles. King James made him Poet Laureate, and it is said offered him knighthood, which he declined. He was always in favor with both King James and King Charles. It seems that notwithstanding his bulky, ungainly figure, and his blunt and sometimes coarse speech, Jonson had a certain courtliness of manner which, together with his wit and learning, won him friends among men and women of the highest
rank. Although he quarreled with many men, he was a welcome companion in the famous company of wits that gathered at the Mermaid Tavern, where he is said to have engaged in many
wit-combats” with his friend Shakespeare. After Shakespeare's death, Jonson was the most prominent man of letters in England. He was surrounded by a group of admiring disciples, called the
sons of Ben,” who were the means of continuing his literary opinions and ideals to later times.
Jonson and Shakespeare. - The differences between Jonson and Shakespeare are numerous and fundamental. Jonson's work as a whole is barer, more prosaic, more learned, and more labored than Shakespeare's. Shakespeare, while remaining true to life, yet contrives to invest his mimic world with a magical atmosphere of beauty and romance. But Jonson is a realist. He was impatient with the attempts to imitate storms and battles on the stage, and he objected to changing the scene in a play from one country to another, from England to France, for example, as Shakespeare had done in Henry V. His purpose was not to picture romantic and distant scenes, but rather to present
deeds, and language, such as men do use.”
In Every Man in His Humour, Bartholomew Fair, and other plays he satirized the humours, or eccentricities, of London characters; he showed playwright and audience what a wealth of dramatic interest lay in the everyday life of street and tavern. In his Roman tragedies of Sejanus and Catiline he used his great knowledge of the ancients to paint with scrupulous care scenes that should be historically correct in every detail. But though these plays are massive, scholarly, and painstaking, they lack the warmth and humanity which distinguished
Shakespeare's treatment of classical themes, and one is apt to read them with respect and profit rather than with delight. Jonson's plays lose much by sacrificing poetry to satire and scholarship, and yet they are excellent in their ingenuity of plot (especially The Alchemist), in their wealth of literal detail, their wit and versatility. Jonson aims to teach a moral, to reform society, and he is not above using the drama as a means of flaying his enemies. Further, he never throws himself completely into his characters; he does not see them from all sides, but takes one trait, and, magnifying it, makes that the man. His men and women are too often caricatures rather than characters.
But there was another side to Jonson's rugged nature. Ponderous as he often seems, he could write the lightest and most charming of lyrics. Songs such as the “ Hymn to Diana," “ Drink to Me only with Thine Eyes," or
See the Chariot at hand here of Love,” are among the treasures of English poetry, while his charming pastoral drama, The Sad Shepherd (1637), is filled with an unexpected tenderness and beauty.
Beaumont and Fletcher. FRANCIS BEAUMONT (1586– 1616) and John FLETCHER (1579–1625), “the great twin brethren of the stage,” follow Shakespeare and not Jonson in the type of their art. The plays which pass under their joint names are full of romance, beauty, and passion; there are melodies in them — as in the lyrical passages in The Faithful Shepherdess -- which invite comparison with Shakespeare. But beautiful as these plays are, they lack the wholesomeness, the masculine vigor, the depth of thought, the firm grasp of human character, which delight us in Shakespeare. They were written more to satisfy the taste of the court than of all classes of Englishmen, and therefore are less