George Chapman was a poet and scholar as well as a playwright. His literary career began with the publication of the poem The Shadow of Night in 1594 and included the completion of a poem begun by Christopher Marlowe, Hero and Leander (1598). Chapman seemed to have been proudest of his achievements as a self-taught scholar. He translated Homer’s Iliad (c. 800 b.c.e.; part of book 18 appeared in 1598, and the entire work was published in 1611) and Odyssey (c. 800 b.c.e.; 1614). He also translated the lesser works of Homer (The Crown of All Homer’s Works, 1624) and Hesiod’s Georgics (c. 700 b.c.e.; 1618). Although a few of Chapman’s plays enjoyed popularity into the eighteenth century, he was best known for his translations. His versions of Homer’s works were read well into the nineteenth century and influenced poet John Keats, among others. Chapman regarded his work on Homer as his life’s mission and believed that Homer’s spirit had visited him and urged him on in his labors. His translation ends with the assertion, “The work that I was born to do, is done.”
With the exception of Chabot, Admiral of France, George Chapman’s plays were written and first produced over a seventeen-year span, from 1596 to 1613. Chapman regarded himself as a scholar and wrote plays simply to earn a living. In his own day, his plays enjoyed varying degrees of success, with his comedies and Bussy d’Ambois meeting with the greatest public favor. Today, Chapman’s plays are seldom performed. They are generally well written, usually reflect his scholarly interests, and have dialogue that is sometimes difficult to speak. In his own day and in subsequent eras, Chapman’s dialogue has been cited as the principal weakness of his plays. The syntax is sometimes so convoluted that actors would have difficulty speaking their lines. On the other hand, the good-natured wit of his best comedies, such as All Fools, makes them appealing even to modern audiences. Chapman lived when both William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson were writing some of the best plays written in any language. His plays suffer in comparison with theirs and thus are not performed as often as they might be. Nevertheless, his comedies have their own special qualities that make them interesting apart from the writings of his great contemporaries.
Chapman’s dark and brutal tragedies lack the universal appeal of the comedies. They are interesting studies of character and moral issues and make for good reading. They are so seldom performed that one has difficulty ascertaining how they might be received by a modern audience.
Scholars place Chapman among the historically important English playwrights. He is credited with several innovations—such as the comedy of humors —that were later used by Ben Jonson and the Restoration dramatists. In overall achievement, he must rank behind Shakespeare and Jonson, but he might be fairly rated as ahead of his other contemporaries, although many of them, such as John Marston, Francis Beaumont, and John Fletcher, might be his superior in some aspects of drama. Having written in an era of great playwrights and great dramas, Chapman has the distinction of having been an innovator and of having created a style uniquely his own.
In his own time, George Chapman was equally well known for his poetry and plays. As a leading playwright for the children’s companies that performed at the Blackfriars Theatre, he achieved distinction in both tragedy and comedy. His greatest success in tragedy was Bussy d’Ambois (pr. 1604, 1641), followed by a sequel, The Revenge of Bussy d’Ambois (pr. c. 1610). His other tragedies include the two-part The Conspiracy and Tragedy of Charles, Duke of Byron (pr., pb. 1608), as well as The Tragedy of Chabot, Admiral of France (pr. c. 1635; with James Shirley) and The Wars of Caesar and Pompey (pr. c. 1613). Chapman also composed the first comedy of humors, An Humourous Day’s Mirth (pr. 1597), and romantic and satiric comedies, including The Blind Beggar of Alexandria (pr. 1596), The Gentleman Usher (pr. c. 1602), All Fools (pr. c. 1604), Monsieur d’Olive (pr. 1604), The Widow’s Tears (pr. c. 1605), and May Day (pr. c. 1609).
George Chapman regarded his English translations of Homer’s Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614) and Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1611) as “the work that I was born to do.” An arduous, demanding task that occupied him for thirty years, his translation was commissioned by the youthful son of James I, Prince Henry, whose untimely death at the age of eighteen left the poet without a patron. Although he continued to work in spite of the lack of patronage, he turned to the stage and to original verse to make his living. That John Keats found looking into Chapman’s Homer a thrilling discovery, which he subsequently immortalized in a sonnet, is a tribute to the quality of this work, which has not been generally admired. Chapman’s translation has receded into obscurity as an archaic and quaint achievement.
Chapman’s original poetry, which is characterized by a remarkable range of theme and style, is often considered difficult or even obscure for the modern reader. A largely philosophical poet, Chapman incorporates challenging intellectual concepts and images in his verse. Some of his more explicitly philosophical poems, such as The Shadow of Night, are rich in Neoplatonic thought, an abstruse subject. Others, such as his continuation ofChristopher Marlowe’s unfinished Hero and Leander, convey ideas through emblematic and...
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Beach, Vincent W. George Chapman: An Annotated Bibliography of Commentary and Criticism. New York: G. K. Hall, 1995. A reference work providing extensive bibliographical information on Chapman. Index.
Bradbrook, Muriel C. George Chapman. London: Longman, 1977. This brief general overview of Chapman’s life and work contains sections on the lyric poetry, including Hero and Leander and the translations of Homer and Hesiod. The individual chapters on the comedies and tragedies conclude that Chapman’s modern reputation will have to be based on only the best of the lyrics plus two tragedies, Bussy d’Ambois and the two parts of the Byron play.
Braunmuller, A. R. Natural Fictions: George Chapman’s Major Tragedies. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1992. Presents Chapman’s plays in their relation to the poet’s theory of art and its connections to the world of history and experience that censored two of his plays and punished him because these dramas offended the French court.
Donno, Elizabeth Story. “The Epyllion.” In English Poetry and Prose, 1540-1674, edited by Christopher Ricks. New York: Peter Bedrick Books, 1986. Donno’s essay provides an excellent introduction to Elizabethan narrative poetry, especially the mythological variety. Her account of Chapman’s narrative verse is sound; another chapter covers his dramatic poetry. The index offers good cross-referencing. Includes a select bibliography.
Florby, Gunilla. The Painful Passage to Virtue: A Study of George Chapman’s the Tragedy of “Bussy D’Ambois” and “The Revenge of Bussy d’Ambois.” Lund, Sweden: CWK Gleerup, 1982. An examination of the two Chapman tragedies about Bussy d’Ambois. Bibliography.
Hamlin, William M. “A Borrowing from Nashe in Chapman’s Bussy d’Ambois.” Notes and Queries 48, no. 3 (September, 2001): 264-265. Hamlin raises the possibility that Chapman borrowed phrases from Thomas Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveller in his work Bussy...
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