The Shoemakers Holiday by Thomas Dekker
The Alchemist by Ben Jonson
A New Way to Pay Old Debts by Philip Massinger
Philaster by Beaumont and Fletcher
The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster
It's not really fair to any writer to judge him against Shakespeare, but it's probably inevitable that I would measure this second volume of English drama against the first volume, which I read last week. Most immediately, it struck me that three of the five plays in this volume are set in Elizabethan or Jacobean England. Shakespeare set only one of his plays in contemporary England. That was The Merry Wives of Windsor, which is among his weakest plays and may have been written on demand for Queen Elizabeth. Famously, Shakespeare offers little of himself in his plays; he offers equally little of his time and place. If you want a dramatic representation of Shakespeare's time, you need to turn to plays like The Shoemaker's Holiday, The Alchemist, and A New Way to Pay Old Debts.
All of these plays -- like Shakespeare's Windsor -- are comedies. All involve cheats and cons and imposters. The best of them is Ben Jonson's The Alchemist. In it, a man flees London to avoid the plague, and his servant and invites a charlatan and a prostitute to set up the house as an alchemist's shop. Together, the three cheat a number of Londoners -- most of them greedy or hypocritical and therefore deserving of the con. This set up allows for satirical portraits of figures from various stations of London society. In the end, everyone makes it out more or less unscathed, and the audience has a great time. But even this great comedy looks a bit trifling beside the monument of Shakespeare's tragedies, all of them set in far off times or places (as are the two tragedies in this volume).
I suspect it may have been impossible at that time to write a local,
contemporary tragedy. Tragedy, in the Aristotelian sense, involves a
reversal suffered by a great figure. In Elizabethan drama,
great usually meant
It would not have done to dramatize the fall of contemporary royalty,
not least because they were likely to be in the audience. One
innovation of the modern era is the notion that tragedy can befall the
otherwise common life, which means that an author can work with the
present day without closing himself off from half the range of
narrative possibilities. But the fact remains that the vast majority of
the great works of narrative literature -- from the Odyssey to War and Peace -- are
in some sense; at least, they're marked by settings that differ, in
time or place or both, from the setting of their composition.
I've been thinking about this issue lately, for a number of reasons.
One of them is the death of Norman Mailer, who set out so resolutely to
create a picture of twentieth century America. Another is the growing
9/11 novels, novels that take on the event or its
aftermath in direct fashion. Both phenomenons -- the 9/11 novel and
Mailer's career -- seem predicated on the idea that there is something
unprecedented about our moment, and that it's part of a
writer's job to help us make sense of it. And perhaps there is truth to
the idea. But there are many things that are permanent about humanity,
and these may be the most important. Certainly, they're the things that
mattered to Shakespeare, which is why his plays tell us almost nothing
about Elizabethan but tell us more about ourselves than a dozen
--CRB, December 6, 2007