The English Pastoral Drama
We have seen in an earlier chapter what had been achieved within the limits of the mythological drama proper, and also how it had fared with the attempts to introduce the Italian pastoral into England either by way of translation or of direct imitation. We have also seen how, in three notable compositions, three different and variously gifted artists had endeavoured to produce a form of pastoral drama suited to the requirements of the English stage, and how they had each in turn fallen short of complete success. We have now to consider a series of plays, less distinguished on the whole, though varying greatly in individual merit, which, amid the luxuriant growth of the romantic drama, tended, in a more spontaneous and less purposeful manner, towards the creation of something of a pastoral tradition. We shall find in these plays a considerable traditional influence, a groundwork, as it were, borrowed from the Arcadian drama of Italy, together with frequent elements owing their origin to plays of the mythological type. But in the great majority of cases we shall also find another influence, which will serve to differentiate these plays from those we have been hitherto concerned with. This is the influence of the so-called pastoral romances of the Spanish type, which manifests itself in the introduction of characters and incidents, warlike, courtly, or adventurous, borrowed more or less directly from the works of writers such as Sidney, Greene, and Lodge. Their influence was extended and enduring, and survived until, towards the middle of the seventeenth century, the fashionable tradition of the Astree was introduced from France. It was evinced both in a general manner and likewise in direct dramatic adaptation. Since the romances thus dramatized lay claim to a pastoral character, it will be necessary for us to examine as briefly as may be these stage versions, however little of the pastoral element may survive, as a preliminary to considering other plays in which the debt is less specific.
There are extant at least seven plays founded upon Sidney’s Arcadia. Since these appear to be wholly independent of one another, it will be convenient to disregard chronology, and to consider first those which have for subject the main story of the romance, four in number, and then the remaining three founded upon various incidents. First, then, and most important, Shirley’s play bearing the same title as the romance will claim our attention as the most full and faithful stage-rendering of Sidney’s work. Although not printed till 1640 the play was, according to Mr. Fleay’s plausible conjecture, performed on the king’s birthdayas early as 1632. It cannot exactly be pronounced a good play, but the dramatization is effected in a manner which does justice to the very great abilities of the author, and the same measure of success would probably not have been attained by any other dramatist of the time.