Among English pastorals there are two plays, and two only, that can be said to stand in the front rank of the romantic drama as a whole. The first of these is, of course, Fletcher’s Faithful Shepherdess. In the case of the second the statement would perhaps be more correctly put in the conditional mood, for whatever might have been its importance had it reached completion, the fragmentary state of Jonson’s Sad Shepherd has prevented its taking the place it deserves in the history of dramatic literature. With these two productions may for the purposes of criticism be classed Thomas Randolph’s Amyntas, which, however inferior to the others in poetic merit, yet like them stands apart in certain matters of intention and origin from the general run of pastorals, and may, moreover, well support a claim to be considered one of the three chief English examples of the kind.
These three plays embrace a period of some thirty years, before, during, and after which a considerable number of dramatic productions, more or less pastoral in character, appeared. The chief feature in which the three plays we are about to consider are distinguished from these is a certain direct and conscious, though in no case subservient, relation they bear to the drama of the Italians; while at the same time we are struck with the absence of any influence of subsidiary or semi-pastoral tradition, of the mythological drama, or the courtly-chivalric romance. We shall therefore gain more by considering them in connexion with each other than we shall lose by abandoning strict chronological sequence.
When Fletcher’s play was produced, probably in the winter of 1608-9, it proved a complete failure. An edition appeared without date, but before May, 1610, to which were prefixed verses by Field, Beaumont, Chapman, and Jonson. If, as some have supposed, the last named already had at the time a pastoral play of his own in contemplation, the reception accorded to his friend’s venture can hardly have been encouraging, and may have led to the postponement of the plan; as we shall see, there is no reason to believe that the Sad Shepherd was taken in hand for another quarter of a century almost. The Faithful Shepherdess was revived long after Fletcher’s death, at a court performance in 1633-4, and shone by comparison with Montagu’s Shepherds Paradise acted the year before. It was then again placed on the public boards at the Blackfriars, where it met with some measure of success.
The Faithful Shepherdess was the earliest, and long remained the only, deliberate attempt to acclimatize upon the popular stage in England a pastoral drama which should occupy a position corresponding to that of Tasso and Guarini in Italy. It was no crude attempt at transplantation, no mere imitation of definite models, as was the case with Daniel’s work, but a deliberate act of creative genius inspired by an ambitious rivalry. Its author might be