A Critical History of English Poetry

By Herbert J. C. Grierson; J. C. Smith | Go to book overview

Chapter Ten
SHAKESPEARE'S PREDECESSORS

THIS book is a study of English poetry, and of drama in so far as it is poetic. English drama in the form of Miracle Play, Morality, and interlude was a verse drama from the outset: a poetic drama one can scarcely call it; its style was almost always homely, not to say banal, its verse, in couplets or stanzas, rough accentual 'doggerel.' Nor, with one exception, was it otherwise for many years with the plays which, under classical influence, struggled to take shape as regular comedies or tragedies. Not till near the end of the sixteenth century did drama take to itself a fitting vesture of verse and prose, verse for the serious and romantic parts, prose for more comic or realistic effects. By that time, happily, the diction of English poetry had acquired new beauty and dignity in the hands of Spenser and Sidney. Then, but not till then, the abundant poetic genius of the age began to pour itself freely into dramatic channels, and produced the crowning glory of Elizabethan literature in a poetic drama comparable at its best with the great poetic drama of the Greeks. We have now to trace the steps by which this result was reached.

Elizabethan drama had two roots. In the Interlude our native drama came within a step of regular comedy, but the step was not taken without foreign aid. A tentative advance was made in Calisto and Meliboea (c. 1520). It called itself not inaptly "a comedy in English in manner of an Interlude," and was in fact a kind of tragi-comedy cut down from a long Spanish play; but it stands alone, and is too slight and moralistic to rob Ralph Roister Doister (c. 1553) of the glory it has long enjoyed of being our first regular comedy. The author, Nicholas Udall, was Headmaster of Eton, where Latin plays were often performed. One year, instead of Plautus, the boys presented an English play modelled on his Miles Gloriosus, a regular comedy in five acts, complete with plot and individual characters. Ralph, the braggart soldier, and his parasite

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