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TRAGEDY AND COMEDY,
THEIR RISE AND PROGRESS.
The performance of Moral-plays was not entirely discontinued until the end of the reign of Elizabeth, and one of the last dramatic representations she beheld was a production of that description—The Contention between Liberality and Prodigality, played before the Queen, in the forty-third year of her reign. Tragedy and Comedy, as we at present understand the terms, had their birth more than half a century before they gained sufficient strength and maturity to drive their elder rivals finally from the stage. The latter, however, were enabled to keep possession so long, partly by means of the approaches, we have been employed in tracing, to the more popular species of composition, and partly because, under the form of allegorical fiction and abstract character, the writers introduced matter which covertly touched upon public events, popular prejudices, and temporary opinions. To this class belong especially The Three Ladies and The Three Lords and Three Ladies of London, before noticed, and some pieces, alluded to by Nash and other pamphleteers, which related to the Martin Mar
prelate controversy, which have not survived the occasion for which they were written.
By Tragedy and Comedy, I mean theatrical productions, the characters in which are either drawn from life, or are intended to represent life, whether those characters be actual or imaginary: the terms include also a species of drama, well known of old in the literature of this country, called 'History,' or Chronicle
• History,' which consisted of certain passages, or events detailed by annalists, put into a dramatic form, often without regard to the course in which they happened ; the author sacrificing chronology, situation, and circumstance to the superior object of producing an attractive play. It is the disregard of the trammels of the unities which constitutes our romantic drama,' whether the story be real or fictitious; and from the earliest period to the time of Shakespeare, there is not a play in our language in which they are strictly observed. The words romantic drama' have reference to form and construction merely, and do not in any respect relate to sentiment or language. In our progress, we shall have occasion to advert to several pieces, such as Ferrex and Porrex, Jocasta, and The Misfortunes of Arthur, which in some not unimportant particulars of their external shape, are made to imitate the productions of the Greek and Latin stage ; but in all of them time, place, and action are more or less disregarded.
If this statement be correct, it follows that our romantic drama may be said to have had its origin with the origin of Tragedy and Comedy, although it reached perfection only in the hands of Shakespeare, who added to it the luxuriance of poetry and the graces of style: before, however, he began to write for the stage, it was fully formed and completely matured.
Our earliest comedy, Ralph Roister Doister, belongs to the reign of Edward VI., if not to that of his father; but the first historical subject regularly brought upon the stage of this country was Ferrex and Porrex, in 1561-2*, and it was followed almost immediately by Julius Cæsar, as I apprehend, the earliest instance on record in which events from the Roman history were dramatised in English. The precise nature of this performance, which is only noticed in an old MS. Chronicle (see Annals of the Stage, vol. i. p. 180) cannot be ascertained. Preston's Cambyses, already dismissed among Moral-plays, is supposed to have been written about the same date; but it is doubtful whether the last three were not preceded by a tragedy upon
* John Bale, Bishop of Ossory under Edward VI., wrote (as has been already seen by the list of his dramatic works) a religious piece relating to King John's quarrel with the Pope, and another on the two marriages of Henry VIII., perhaps of a similar tendency, and connected with the progress of the Reformation. They have not survived, but probably in no sense of the words could they be considered historical plays. The play upon the romantic incidents of the life of Robert of Cicily, acted as early as the reign of Henry VII., and repeated during that of his successor, was, doubtless, conducted like a Miracle-play upon the life of a saint or martyr.
Luigi da Porto’s famous novel of Romeo and Juliet : Arthur Brooke, in the address to the Readers,' before his . Tragical History on this subject, printed in 1562, mentions that he had seen the same argument lately set forth on stage,' by which we are no doubt to understand the English stage, or he would have specified the contrary, and would not have lamented that he could not deserve the same degree of commendation *. From about this date until shortly after the year 1570, the field, as far as we have the means of judging, seems to have been pretty equally divided between the later Morals and the earlier attempts in Tragedy, Comedy, and History. In some pieces of this date, (as well as subsequently,) we see endeavours made, as has been already shown, to reconcile or combine the two different modes of writing; but Morals afterwards generally gave way, and yielded the victory to a more popular and more intelligible species of performance. The licence to James Burbage and others in 1574, mentions comedies, tragedies, interludes and stage-plays;' and in the act of Common Council against their performance in the
* Malone argued that Shakespeare borrowed his plot chiefly from Arthur Brooke's poem, while Steevens was of opinion that he followed the novel, as translated in The Palace of Pleasure. It does not seem to have occurred to these commentators, that our great dramatist may in this, as in other instances, have availed himself of the assistance of earlier stage-poets; and it is highly improbable that a story so interesting and so popular should have remained unadapted to our stage until 1596, when the commentators suppose Shakespeare to have produced the first tragedy on the subject.
city, in the following year, theatrical performances are designated as 'interludes, tragedies, comedies, and shows; including much more than the old Miracleplays, or more recent Moral-plays, which would be embraced by the words • interludes,' shows,' and even "stage-plays,'but to which the terms 'tragedies' and comedies,' found in both instruments, could not be so properly applicable *.
The fact that the taste of the people, about this period, had been weaned in a great degree from the dull abstractions of Moral-plays, and that a new species of dramatic entertainment had been introduced into our public theatres with great success, is proved by a contemporary author, who made himself sufficiently notorious, first as a writer of plays, and subsequently as an enemy of dramatic representations-Stephen Gosson. He published his first attack upon the stage, The School of Abuse, in 1579, and two years before it appeared t, he had written the comedy of Captain
* Nevertheless, in our progress we have seen the terms misapplied, both by the authors of religious plays and of Morals, upon their title. pages. As late as 1578, Thomas Lupton called his Moral of All for Money, both a tragedy and a comedy-a fact which of itself shows the vague notions then attached to the words,
+Since my publishing the School of Abuse, two playes of my making were brought to the stage: the one was a cast of Italian • devises, called the comedie of Captain Mario ; the other a Moral, 'Praise at Parting. These they very impudentlie affirme to be writ• ten by me since I had set out my invective against them. I cannot
denie they were both mine, but they were both penned two yeeres, at • the least, before I forsook them.' Preface to Gosson's Plays confuted in five Actions, Vol. II.