George Chapman (1559?-1634), who is best known for his fine translation of Homer’s Iliad, turned dramatist in middle life, but found it difficult to enter into the feelings of characters unlike himself. His best two plays, Bussy D’Ambois and The Revenge of Bussy D’Ambois, are tragedies founded on French history. Thomas Middleton, gifted in dramatic technique and dialogue and noted for his comedy of domestic manners, was the author of Michaelmas Term, A Trick to Catch the Old One, The Changeling (in collaboration with William Rowley, 1585?-1640?). John Marston (1576?-1634) wrote Antonio and Mellida, a blood and thunder tragedy, and collaborated with Jonson and Chapman to produce Eastward Hoe, an excellent comic picture of contemporary life. The Shoemaker’s Holiday of Thomas Dekker (1570?-1640) is also a good comedy of London life and manners. Philip Massinger (1584-1640), a later collaborator with Fletcher, wrote A New Way to Pay Old Debts, a play very popular in after times. Thomas Heywood (1572?-1650), one of the most prolific dramatists, claimed to have had “either an entire hand or at the least a main finger,” in two hundred and twenty plays. His best work is A Woman Killed with Kindness, a domestic drama that appealed to the middle classes.
A Tragic Group.—Three dramatists: John Webster (1602-1624), Cyril Tourneur (1575?-1626), and John Ford (1586-1640?), had a love for the most somber tragedy. In tragic power, Webster approaches nearest to Shakespeare. Webster’s greatest play, The Duchess of Malfi (acted in 1616), and The White Devil, which ranks second, show the working of a master hand, but Webster’s genius comes to a focus only in depicting the horrible. He loves such gloomy metaphors as the following:—
speak as if a man
Should know what fowl is coffined in a baked meat
Afore you cut it open.”
Tourneur’s The Atheist’s Tragedy is in Webster’s vein, but far inferior to The Duchess of Malfi.
Ford’s The Broken Heart is a strong, but unpleasant, tragedy. He is so fascinated with the horrible that he introduces it even when it is not the logical outcome of a situation. His best but least characteristic play is Perkin Warbeck, which is worthy of ranking second only to Shakespeare’s historical plays.
End of the Elizabethan Drama.—James Shirley (1596-1666), “the last of the Elizabethans,” endeavored to the best of his ability to continue the work of the earlier dramatists. The Traitor and The Cardinal are two of the best of his many productions. He was hard at work writing new plays in 1642, when the Puritans closed the theaters. He was thus forced to abandon the profession that he enjoyed and compelled to teach in order to earn a livelihood.
The drama has never since regained its Elizabethan ascendancy. The coarse plays of the Restoration (1660) flourished for a while, but the treatment of the later drama forms but a minor part of the history of the best English literature. Few plays produced during the next two hundred years are much read or acted to-day. She Stoops to Conquer (1773), by Oliver Goldsmith, and The Rivals (1775) and The School for Scandal (1777), by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, are the chief exceptions before 1890.