The following article was originally published in The Outlines of Literature: English and American. Truman J. Backus. New York: Sheldon and Company, 1897. pp. 86-8.
Shakespeare's early contemporaries were most of them men of liberal education, and were lured into the new profession by the prospect of swift gain. All possessed abilities of a high order; but Shakespeare is the giant of the group, and beside him the others dwindle into comparative insignificance. These men, George Chapman, John Lyly, George Peele, Robert Green, Christopher Marlowe, and Thomas Kyd, are often styled the predecessors of Shakespeare; but they were more properly the contemporaries of his early literary life.
The careers of these men were the same in general outline. They attached themselves as dramatic actors and poets to one of the numerous companies, and after a short apprenticeship passed in rewriting and rearranging plays, they produced original works. As there was no dramatic copyright at this time, playwrights had the strongest motive for taking every precaution that their pieces should NOT be printed, publication instantly annihilating their monopoly, and allowing rival companies to profit by their labors. This is the reason why so few of the dramas of the period were given to the press at the time. They were the jealously guarded property of the theaters or companies placing them on the stage.
JOHN LYLY (1553?-1606), educated at Oxford, a man of classical culture, composed plays for the court, and pageants. His writings exhibit genius, though strongly tinctured with a peculiar Spanish affectation, with which he colored the language of elegant conversation, and even of literature, till it fell under the ridicule of Drayton, who characterized it as
- "Talking of stones, stars, plants, of fishes, flies,
- Playing with words and idle similes."
This pedantic, superfine use of language is known as Euphuism. The name was taken from the title of Lyly's, in two parts, The Anatomy of Wit, and Euphues and His England. It is full of good advice concerning the social and moral relations of life.
By far the most powerful genius in this group of dramatists was Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593). On leaving the University of Cambridge he joined a troop of actors, among whom he was noted for debauchery. His career was short. He was stabbed in the head with his own dagger, which he had drawn in a jealous quarrel. His works are not numerous; but they are distinguished from those of preceding and contemporary dramatists by an air of astonishing energy and elevation -- an elevation, it is true, which is sometimes exaggerated, and an energy which occasionally degenerates into extravagance. He established the use of blank verse in the English drama. His first work was the tragedy of Tamburlaine the Great. The declamation in this piece, though sometimes bombastic, led Ben Jonson to speak of "Marlowe's mighty line;" and the play contains many passages of great power and beauty. Marlowe's best work is the drama of Faustus; and there is no passage in Goethe's grand treatment of the same old legend, in which terror, despair, and remorse are painted with so powerful a hand as in the closing scene of Marlowe's drama. The tragedy of the Jew of Malta is characterized by similar merits and defects. The hero, Barabbas, is the type of Jew as he appeared to the bigoted imaginations of the fifteenth century -- a monster half terrific, half ridiculous, impossibly rich, inconceivably bloodthirsty, cunning, and revengeful, the bugbear of an age of ignorance and persecution. The intense expression of his rage, his triumph and his despair, give occasion for many noble bursts of Marlowe's powerful declamation. The tragedy of Edward II, the last of this great poet's works, shows that in the power of awakening terror and pity, he might have become the rival of Shakespeare himself.
Marlowe is known in other departments of poetry also. His charming poem, Hero and Leander, which forms a part of The Passionate Shepherd, published in 1599, had the rare distinction of being quoted by Shakespeare, and of being answered in The Nymph's Reply by Sir Walter Raleigh.
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