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In the notices of English Tragedy, prefixed to the first volume of this Collecs tion, we have applied them severally to three periods of dramatic history. The same distinction may be followed with advantage in the present sketch; not that we pretend, in either case, a perfect and accurate division, for the influence of those causes which occasioned a change of taste was necessarily gradual.. Our observations are therefore only applied to a general view of each æra, the commencement and termination of which may doubtless include plays which rather belonged to the school of that by which it is preceded or followed.
I. Our dramatic antiquaries maintain, that the oldest play which can, with any propriety, claim the title of a comedy, is the piece of low and broad humour, entitled, Gammer Gurton's Needle. If so, the art speedily improved ; for that piece was acted in 1575, and within the space of thirty years, the comedies of Shakespeare, of Jonson, of Beaumont and Fletcher, and of Massinger, had graced the British theatre. The nature of our miscellaneous collection necessarily excludes the works of Shakespeare, which every lover of the drama possesses in a complete state, and consequently excuses us from the presumptuous attempt of epitomizing the general characteristics of his comedies. His powerful, though får unequal rival, despairing of imitating the wild and impetuous flights of bis genius, professed, with a sullen and splenetic affectation of condescension, that he copied nature, and required no laugh front the audience, but when their own observation could trace in common life a likeness of the comic characters which he drew. It was on Jonson's comedies those lines of Dryden were chiefly grounded, which exposed the latter poet to the charge of an attempt to undermine the reputation of a celebrated predecessor :
The censure of Dryden is so far just, that Jonson chiefly aimed at mirth by the contrast and collision of humours, which was then the technical term for characters swayed and directed by some predominant passion, the display of which, under various circumstances, formed the strength of the comedy. Nor can it be denied that these characters of humour, though drawn with much strength of outline, and boldness of colouring, bordered frequently on extravagance, and were, moreover, often a mere bald personification of the lowest vices and follies The comedies of Beaumont and Fletcher resembled the severe and dry style of Jonsun, in those plays where the taste of Beaumont predominated. But, in the unassisted plays of Fletcher, as in Rule a Wife and have a Wife, and the Chances, the comedy is lively, light, whimsical and elegant, presenting frequently the fashionable manners of the day; and, in picturesque incident and laughable satire, outstripping, in the judgment of contemporaries, even Shakespeare himself. Massinger affords a strong contrast to all the comic writers of his time. His characters of comic folly are so clouded with deeper and darker passions, that Tragedy might often claim for her own those which his title-page assigns to the lighter muse. His Sir Giles Overreach is a
a Richard III. in ordinary life; his Luke is an lago, whose vices break forth, first through the veil of hypocritical humility, and then through a second inner disguise of affected joviality. Few characters lay more powerful hold of the attention than those of Massinger, when represented by such an actor as Cooke, whose harsh, hard, dry, yet striking mode of action, conveys the idea of the domestic villain whom the poet wished to draw. Yet we doubt if his powerful acting is not witnessed with feelings very distinct from those with which we applaud the comic scene, and more allied to such as are excited by tragedy. In the art of conducting and connecting the story of the piece, those distinguished poets differed almost as widely as in their style of character. Fletcher, with the extremity of negligence, run his actors into a chaos of incident and bustle, without much attention to propriety, probability, or indeed to any thing more than throwing a comic light upon each isolated scene. The whole was winded up by some extraordinary accident, some unexpected discovery, some sudden change of mind and temper in a leading personage, or such other similar inartificial expedient, as no audience could admit to be fitting or natural, though they might be, perhaps, too much amused with the events preceding the catastrophe, to be critically scrupulous about the mode in which it was accomplished. Jonson did not assume the same license to the same extent. His character as a scholar, upon which he piqued himself, required a more strict conformity with the severe models of antiquity : Accordingly, in his comedies, the rules of Aristotle are decently observed ; and the chief actor is not introduced as changing his habits, disposition, and temper, merely that the poet may end his play. Neither is Jonson, like Fletcher, guilty of admitting a variety of unconnected incidents into the same drama, strictly observing, on the contrary, his own rule, that, if there be many actions or plots in one play, they must be all subservient to the main catastrophe, and in a just and fitting proportion approach to the same general end. But Jonson's plays, like those of the ancients, are in the action as inartificial and naked, as regular and severe. His plots are bounded, and his characters simple; so that the perusal of his dramatis personæ, or the representation of a first act, enables the reader or hearer to guess pretty nearly at the nature of the catastrophe, and of the incidents which are to produce it. Massinger, on the contrary, with less rule, had more real art than the scholastic Jonson. It is seldom that from the beginning of his pieces we can judge of their probable