Shakespeare's : Contemporaries and Successors

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      Among the contemporaries and successors of Shakespeare, the most important are Ben Jonson, Chapman, John Marston, Thomas Dekker, Thomas Heywood, Thomas Middleton, Tourneur, Philip Massinger, Webster, Beaumont, Fletcher and Ford. There has been a distinct note of decadence with these dramatists particularly in the field of tragedy. In Shakespearean tragedies, there is enough horror and melodrama, but these tragedies are not mere melodramas. The evil that is shown in the tragedies is ultimately resolved, the disintegrated tragic universe is restored to equilibrium at the end and a note of reaffirmation of values is struck at the end. But with the post-Shakespearan dramatists, this note of resolution of evil is absent. They create a world of unrelieved gloom and evil. They deal with the themes of incest and sexual immorality. There is the element of the morbid and the macabre in these plays.

Among the contemporaries and successors of Shakespeare, the most important are Ben Jonson, Chapman, John Marston, Thomas Dekker, Thomas Heywood, Thomas Middleton, Tourneur, Philip Massinger, Webster, Beaumont, Fletcher and Ford.
Shakespeare Successors

      John Webster (1580-1623) is a very able and clever dramatist. He is almost equal in power with Shakespeare in the matter of creating profound and intens tragic emotions. He is regarded as one of the most inspired playwrights of this period, although his tragedies all lack force and concentration of purpose. After an early career of work in collaboration with others, he is engaged as an independent playwright in Appius and Virginia, The White Devil, The Duchess of Malfi, A Cure for a Cuckold, The Devil's Lawcase. Of these, The White Devil and The Lawcase of Malfi are the most famous tragedies on which his fame rests. The chief figure of The White Devil is the notorious Vittoria whose deeds and death occurred during Webster's lifetime. Having urged her lover, Brachiano to murder her husband Cammillo and his own Duchess Isabella. Vittoria marries him and both eventuaty fall victims to the vengeance of Isabella's brother. Great power distinguish scene in which Vittoria stands her trial.

      But The Diuchess of Malfi (1512-1514) is a greater play. The persecution of the Duchess by her brothers for having married the man of her heart, her murder at their order by the imaginative villain, Bosola and his remorse and atonement are described with intense tragic feeling and the subtlest psychological sense. Webster's sinister's imagination displays itself not only in the main features of plot and character, but in the unearthly images and haunting lines of poetry with which the two great tragedies abound. He shows skill in characterisation. Physical horrors are made to reveal the spiritual anguish of the heroines and are thus made an integral part of the drama. In his revenge tragedies, sympathy is drawn in favour of the victims. The revengers are villains. Webster's poetry is impressive it has a wishful and tender charm: Cover her face, Mine eyes dazle - she died young. There is a pervasive atmosphere of gloom and corruption, but at the end of the plays, moral order is asserted. It is a fact that Webster's tragedies turn on revenge, that there is crude horror and melodrama. But it cannot be denied that he is one of the few dramatists of the time who has an insight into human being and who was able to delineate individuals and not merely to sketch rude types.

      John Marston's (1576-1634) Antonio and Mallida (1600) and Antonio's Revenge are lurid essays in the tragedy of blood and thunder. In the Malcontent (1604) the bitter quality of his early verse satires reappears in the utterances of the honest Malevole who is the hero of the play. The Dutch Courtezan is a well-made comedy notable for the rollicking Cockledemoy, one of the most amusing characters in Elizabethan drama. Marston is a baffled and a baffling genius, constantly promising some great triumph in the sinister. He descends at times to extravagance, sheer nonsense and coarse speech. The dates of his plays are not definitely known. But the variety and originality of his works are evident. The Malcontent if it preceded Hamlet set the fashion of castigating society in lyrical irony. Rupert Brooke says of Marston: "He loved dirt for the sake of truth, also for its own. Filth, horror and wit were his legacy.

      Thomas Dekker (1570-1632) was a prolific writer in various kinds and one of the most unfortunate among Elizabethan writers. His genial nature and his sympathy with popular types are evident in The Shoemaker's Holiday which is perhaps the earliest drama representing his unaided work. This drama combines a charming love story with the humours and intrigues of contemporary English life. Symon Eyre, the master shoe-maker is a delightfully drawn figure and the play despite its elements of pathos breathe the serene atmosphere of work and contentment. In the Houest Whore, Dekker once more displays his gift of pathos. In the plays of Dekker, passionate idealism constantly transfigured the most sordid scenes and subjects, and this idealism is abundantly clear in the Honest Whore which in its culminating phase shows the reclaiming of the courtesan Bellafront. Her father who seeks her out and leads her back to virtue is greatly drawn. Dekker was chiefly a collaborator. He collaborated with Webster in Sir Thomas Wyatt, with Middleton in Roaring Girl, and with Ford in The Witch of Edmonton.

      Thomas Heywood (1575-1641) has been called by Lamb "the Prose-Shakespeare." It is supposed that he had a hand in no less than two hundred and twenty plays of which over thirty survives. His masterpiece, A Woman Killed With Kindness is the greatest surviving example of English domestic tragi-comedy. It deals with the seduction of a woman by the friend of her husband who discovers the wrong and forbears to punish his wife. Her remorse brings her to death, but before the end she begs and received her husband's forgiveness. In The English Traveller, a hardly less delicate subject is handled with almost equal success. Lacking Webster's intense imaginative power and Dekker's gift of poetry, Heywood displays in these two plays the rare power of being able to deal with fine emotional issues without ever falling into the slough of sentimentalism.

      Phillip Massinger (1583-1640) is a serious and skilful playwright. His best comedies are: A New Way to Pay Old Debts, The City Madam, The Maid of Honour, etc. His tragedies: The Roman Actor, The Diuke of Milan, The Fatal Dowry are characterised by excessive romanticism and over-contrived plot. His style and verse are strong and solid. If not inspired, he is a conscientious writer of scenes which are often noble.

      Cyril Tourneur (1575-1626) wrote two tragedies of blood and thunder, The Revenger's Tragedy and The Atheist's Tragedy. They are crude and melodramatic. The first book recalls Hamlet in that the hero has a mission to punish the guilty. No other play of the time has a more intense dramatic effect and so clear and rapid a style.

      Thomas Middleton (1580-1627) wrote comedies distinguished by their liveliness, and dexterity: Michaelmas Terme, A Chast Mayd in Cheap-side. In his tragedy, he showed unexpected force. He produced Woman Beware Woman which deals with the scandalous crimes of the Italian courtesan Binaca Capello. His other tragedies or romantic comedies were written in collaboration with William Rowley.

      Beaumont and Fletcher were friends who chiefly wrote together. Their comedies include The Scornful Ladie, The Knight of the Burning Pestle. Their tragedies are The Maides Tragedy and A King and No King. All these plays reveal a surprising knowledge of stage-craft. The Knight of the Burning Pestle is a blend of many elements and is the gayest of comedies. It is however his tragi-comedy like Philaster and The Maides Tragedy which have profoundly influenced Shakespeare's last plays. Impossible romance, artificiality, and stereotyped characterisation mark these plays. His heroes conform to a single type, namely the cavalier gallant idealised. Extravagant sentiment and pathos pervade these plays.

      To the decadence of post-Shakespearean drama belong also John Ford. His fame depends on his three tragedies: Love's Sacrifice, It is pity, She is a Whore, and The Broken Heart and on his interesting and thoroughly well-made history play Warbeck. The first of these plays exhibits passion, foiled of its actual consummation. The second develops sympathetically a theme of passion which is very poetica In "The Broken Heart" passion is again dominant over all else in life and death. It takes very effective form in the scene where Calantha, dancing on the eve of her marriage is told successively of the deaths of her father, Penthea and her betrothed, yet dances on to the end when she plots her own doom. Ford's sensationalism, his love of forbidden themes and his moral antinomianism are commonly cited to his disadvantage; but they seem inseparable from the less dubious qualities ot nis genius-the intensity of imagination, the poignant sense of tragic fate, the audience intuition of character which to all who have felt the meaning of life or literature give him a place very little below the highest.

      English tragedy after Shakespeare declined. The court of James I was extravagant and immoral. There was a sense of cynicism and criticism among the writers of the age. The dramatists were pre-occupied with themes of decay, incest and despair. Sensationalism, morbidity and immorality pervade the plays. There was no redeeming feature by way of suggesting the resolution of evil that we find in Shakespeare's plays.

      In comedy, there was a tendency towards realism and humour. The sunny bright comedies of Shakespeare were replaced by realistic comedies. Dekker's The Shoemaker's Holiday combines a charming love story with the humours and intrigues of contemporary English life. Beaumont and Fletcher's The Knight of the Burning Pestle is a blend of many elements - it is the gayest of comedies. Comedies like A New way to pay old debts, The City Madam by Philips Massinger, and Thomas Middleton's The Chaste Maid in Cheapside are remarkable for hilarious comedy and realism. In short, comedy became realistic and more true to life and more vivid as social pictures.

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