George Chapman’s plays are diverse in structure, topic, and style, yet they are united by his interests in learning and learned people, his dismay at the unfairness of human society, and his moral beliefs. Beginning with boisterous and exuberant comedy, moving through satire and tragicomedy, then through violently dynamic tragedies, and ending with philosophical tragedies, Chapman’s plays reveal a remarkably coherent ethos and a mastery of poetry and prose that allows for wonderful diversity in the dramas.
The Blind Beggar of Alexandria and An Humourous Day’s Mirth
The first extant play by Chapman, The Blind Beggar of Alexandria, exists only in a truncated version. It was very popular and was often performed, but only its subplot was printed in 1598. Its main plot can be interpolated only from fragments found in the subplot’s story of Iris, the blind beggar. It shares with the play that followed it, An Humourous Day’s Mirth, the distinction of being a comedy of humours—a play in which each of the characters represents an aspect of human nature, such as greed or sloth. Although Ben Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour (pr. 1598) is sometimes credited with being the first comedy of humors, both of Chapman’s plays predate it. Therefore, Chapman’s first two plays have historical importance as the earliest extant examples of an important late Renaissance form of comedy, although the question of who actually invented the form is problematic. This form remained important for Jonson throughout his career, but it was abandoned by Chapman after 1602.
Neither The Blind Beggar of Alexandria nor An Humourous Day’s Mirth is important for its artistry. Both are funny, and both have intricate plots typical of much of Chapman’s comedy. The first shows his use of classical sources for inspiration, also typical of much of his dramatic writing. The Blind Beggar of Alexandria is peopled by Greek characters—King Ptolemy, Aegiale, Cleanthes, Prince Doricles, and others. The elements of Greek comedy, such as magic, are combined with Renaissance themes, such as comedy inspired by social manners. In his later plays, Chapman combined classical and contemporary forms to refresh stock ideas. An Humourous Day’s Mirth is a weak play overcrowded with superfluous characters and is awkwardly constructed. Its significance for Chapman’s later achievements is found in its scholarly heroine Florilla, whose true learning is contrasted with the pretenses of those around her. The assuming by characters of false humors, such as melancholy, in order to appear learned or sensitive, and the gulling of fools are reminiscent of the comedies of Jonson, but the concern for genuine learning, as personified by Florilla, distinguishes Chapman’s work. Other playwrights of Chapman’s day, including Jonson, mocked false learning and admired true scholarship, but none examined them as consistently as Chapman.
An Humourous Day’s Mirth was followed by a minor masterpiece of comedy, All Fools. The play is about Rinaldo, a schemer roughly related to the Vice of medieval morality plays and to the intriguing servant of classical drama; Valerio, Rinaldo’s friend and favored son of Gostanzo; and Fortunio, Rinaldo’s virtuous brother. Around these three young men revolve their fathers, a jealous husband, and the women—Gratiana and Bellanora—whom Valerio and Fortunio love. The intricate plot of the play is representative of comedies of its day. Rinaldo schemes to dupe various characters, and according to the weaknesses in their personalities, various characters are duped. Some, such as Gostanzo, think that they are gulling others even as they are gulled.
The plot of Chapman’s All Fools comes mainly from Terence’s comedy Heautontimorumenos (163 b.c.e.; The Self-Tormentor, 1598), although Chapman reworked it into a play that is more Elizabethan than classical in character and colored it with a strong moral point of view not found in Terence’s play. Gostanzo is deluded about himself and his son Valerio; he believes himself to be wise and his son to be virtuous when, in fact, he is foolish and his son is a profligate gambler who is heavily in debt. Valerio marries Gratiana but keeps the marriage secret from Gostanzo because she is not wealthy enough for Gostanzo’s approval and because he is supposed to be innocent of worldly matters such as male-female relationships. Gostanzo also has a daughter, Bellanora, who loves Fortunio, a modest and virtuous young man who also is not wealthy enough to satisfy Gostanzo. Once, when Valerio, Gratiana, Fortunio, and Rinaldo are together, they see Gostanzo approaching them, and all save Rinaldo flee. Rinaldo tells Gostanzo that Gratiana and Fortunio are secretly married and wish to keep the marriage secret from Fortunio’s father, Marc Antonio. Gostanzo believes Rinaldo’s story and tells it to Marc Antonio at the first opportunity, even though he had promised to keep the story secret. Under Rinaldo’s influence, Gostanzo convinces Marc Antonio that Fortunio is in danger of becoming a dissolute young man and that Valerio might prove to be a good influence on him if Fortunio and Gratiana lived in Gostanzo’s home. Thus, without his knowing it, Gostanzo arranges for Valerio and Gratiana to live together and leaves Fortunio free to court Bellanora.
All Fools might remain a funny but unexceptional comedy, but Chapman was enough of an artist to allow his characters to learn, grow, and change. The plot becomes increasingly complex as Gostanzo suspects that Valerio is having a love affair with Fortunio’s wife (who is really Valerio’s wife), and under Rinaldo’s influence, he pretends to Marc Antonio that Gratiana is really Valerio’s wife (which she is, but Gostanzo does not know it) and persuades Marc Antonio to take Gratiana into his house and to allow Valerio to visit her. Gostanzo, proud of his wisdom, believes he has gulled Marc Antonio. The plot expands to include Cornelio, a jealous husband, and Gazetta, his wife. Rinaldo tricks Cornelio into believing that Gazetta has a lover, and Cornelio attacks the supposed lover and arranges to divorce his wife. In the meantime, Gostanzo is tricked into giving his blessing to the marriage of Valerio and Gratiana, believing that he is tricking Marc Antonio because he thinks Fortunio is married to Gratiana. Cornelio learns of Rinaldo’s deceit and decides to trick Rinaldo and Valerio. He tells Rinaldo that Valerio has finally been arrested for his debts and is held at the Half Moon Tavern. Rinaldo and Gostanzo rush to the tavern and find Valerio gaming and drinking. Gostanzo, learning of his son’s profligacy and recognizing the trick that has been played on him, is at first enraged. He discovers that Fortunio and Bellanora have also married and that he is not as clever and wise as he thought. He has acquired enough wisdom to recognize his own limitations, however, and he accepts what has happened. With Cornelio’s reconciliation with Gazetta, all parties are reconciled, and All Fools ends with its characters happy.
Although the play’s ending seems a bit contrived, Gostanzo’s growth is believable. His pride was immoral and helped to drive Valerio and Rinaldo to their deceitful behavior. Rinaldo is also proud; he takes pride in his ability to manipulate Gostanzo, Marc Antonio, and Cornelio. The comeuppance delivered by Cornelio is a necessary lesson for Rinaldo, who learns that he, too, can be tricked. Happiness is possible at the end of the play because the characters learn to accept themselves and others as they are. Pride and trickery had prevented such acceptance.
All Fools has much charm and much good comedy; its mad plot can still entertain a modern audience. May Day also retains the ability to entertain, although it is not as strong a play as All Fools. In May Day, the schemer is Lodovico; other figures based on classical conventions appear in the play, including Quintiliano, a representative of the miles gloriosus (braggart soldier) commonly found in classical comedies. As in All Fools, conventions, classical or otherwise, serve as foundations for Chapman’s development of complex characterizations and his sophisticated comedy. Like All Fools, May Day is a comedy of humors; Chapman wrote one more such play, Sir Giles Goosecap. Although still...
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