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This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 198 pages of information about The Age of Shakespeare.

For it is only with Shakespeare that Webster can ever be compared in any way to his disadvantage as a tragic poet:  above all others of his country he stands indisputably supreme.  The place of Marlowe indeed is higher among our poets by right of his primacy as a founder and a pioneer:  but of course his work has not—­as of course it could not have—­that plenitude and perfection of dramatic power in construction and dramatic subtlety in detail which the tragedies of Webster share in so large a measure with the tragedies of Shakespeare.  Marston, the poet with whom he has most in common, might almost be said to stand in the same relation to Webster as Webster to Shakespeare.  In single lines and:  phrases, in a few detached passages and a very few distinguishable scenes, he is worthy to be compared with the greater poet; he suddenly rises and dilates to the stature and the strength of a model whom usually he can but follow afar off.  Marston, as a tragic poet, is not quite what Webster would be if his fame depended simply on such scenes as those in which the noble mother of Vittoria breaks off her daughter’s first interview with Brachiano—­spares, and commends to God’s forgiveness, the son who has murdered his brother before her eyes—­and lastly appears “in several forms of distraction,” “grown a very old woman in two hours,” and singing that most pathetic and imaginative of all funereal invocations which the finest critic of all time so justly and so delicately compared to the watery dirge of Ariel.  There is less refinement, less exaltation and perfection of feeling, less tenderness of emotion and less nobility of passion, but hardly less force and fervor, less weighty and sonorous ardor of expression, in the very best and loftiest passages of Marston:  but his genius is more uncertain, more fitful and intermittent, less harmonious, coherent, and trustworthy than Webster’s.  And Webster, notwithstanding an occasional outbreak into Aristophanic license of momentary sarcasm through the sardonic lips of such a cynical ruffian as Ferdinand or Plamineo, is without exception the cleanliest, as Marston is beyond comparison the coarsest writer of his time.  In this as in other matters of possible comparison that “vessel of deathless wrath,” the implacable and inconsolable poet of sympathy half maddened into rage and aspiration goaded backward to despair—­it should be needless to add the name of Cyril Tourneur—­stands midway between these two more conspicuous figures of their age.  But neither the father and master of poetic pessimists, the splendid and sombre creator of Vindice and his victims, nor any other third whom our admiration may discern among all the greatest of their fellows, can be compared with Webster on terms more nearly equal than those on which Webster stands in relation to the sovereign of them all.

THOMAS DEKKER

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