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ESSAYS AND REVIEWS.
OLD ENGLISH DRAMATISTS.*
AMONG the English critics of the present century, none was entitled to speak with more authority of the Old English Dramatists than Charles Lamb. His letters and essays show that his choicest hours were spent in their company. Their scenes and characters did not merely pass before his mind for review, but seemed to run into his blood and imagination, and blend with his life. He was the representative of the Elizabethan age to the nineteenth century, and enforced the claims of his stalwart veterans to attention with a nicety of criticism which had the sureness of a fine instinct. The notes to his Specimens, quaint, keen, and short, are good examples of penetrating and interpretative criticism. The fine fusion in Lamb's mind of humor and imagination gives to these meagre notices a peculiar raciness and sweetness, unlike most retrospective criticism. Marlowe, Decker, Webster, Massinger, Ben Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher, were not to him mere names of persons who once existed, but he had a genial sense of their presence, as he bent lovingly over their time-stained pages. Their hearts and imaginations spoke directly to his own; theirs were the old familiar faces, known from his youth upwards. We conceive of him, at times, as being present at the wit contests at the Mermaid, and as feeling the “words of subtile flame” which flashed from the lips of Shakspeare, Jonson, and Fletcher. From his realization of them as persons, he was less likely to exaggerate their merits as authors. He saw them as they were in their lives, and judged them as a kindly contemporary spirit. Consequently, his volume of Specimens is infused with the very soul of the time; and it may
* Specimens of English Dramatic Poets who lived about the time of Shak. speare. With Notes. By Charles Lamb. New York: Wiley & Putnam. 1845. 16mo. pp. 448.
Lectures on the Dramatic Literature of the Age of Elizabeth. By William Hazlitt. New York: Wiley & Putnam. 16mo. pp. 216. – North American Review, July, 1846.
be set down as one of the most fascinating of compilations.
The Lectures of Hazlitt on the same period are a good counterpart to Lamb's book. They display more than his usual strength, acuteness, and animation, with less than the usual acerbities of his temper. His stern, sharp analysis pierces and probes the subject down through the surface to the centre; and it is exercised in a more kindly spirit than is common with him. His volume is enriched with delicious quotations. Hazlitt had a profound appreciation of the elder dramatists, though a less social feeling for them than Lamb; and their characteristic excellences drew from him some of his heartiest bursts of eloquent panegyric. From his Lectures and Lamb's Specimens, the general reader would be likely to gain a more vivid notion of the intellectual era they commemorate, than from any other sources, except the originals themselves.
The period of time in which those whom we call the Old English Dramatists flourished runs from the middle of the reign of Elizabeth to the Great Rebellion, about sixty years. The most brilliant portion of this period was the reign of James the First. The drama commenced with Buckhurst, and died out in Shirley. In the intervening time, we have the names of Marlowe, Shakspeare, Webster, Decker, Tourneur, Heywood, Middleton, Chapman, Ben Jonson, Marston, Massinger, Ford, and Beaumont and Fletcher, a constellation of genius, which, in power and variety, in imagination, passion, fancy, wit, sense, philosophy, character, nature, is unexampled in the intellectual annals of the world. Bacon, Hooker, Hobbes, Browne, Cudworth, Barrow, Taylor, Napier, Spenser, Sidney, Raleigh, and, we may add, Milton, may be classed in the same generation. These sixty years were most emphatically “rammed ” with intellectual life. Great men, men of originating minds in different departments of literature and science, men eminent in action and speculation, men whose names ring now as sweet music in the ears of all who speak the English tongue, seemed to have been crowded and crammed into this era, “ infinite riches in a little room.” Yet the age was what we would call rude and coarse in its manners, the language had not been trained into a facile instrument of thought, few people were “educated,” in our sense of the term, and civilization had but imperfectly done its work on the old barbarism ; and yet, we doubt if external circumstances were ever more propitious to the development in a people of the greatest energies of intellect and passion.
The age to which we refer was one of vast intellectual and moral activity. That great movement of the Euro