Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 854

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The English poet and critic Algernon Charles Swinburne considered All Fools to be George Chapman’s best comedy. Having proven successful with sophisticated and popular audiences, it was notably revived for performance before King James I on New Year’s Eve night, 1604. All Fools remains one of Chapman’s most skillfully constructed plays, with well-rounded, realistically established characters and a plot that transcends the contrivance of much of Jacobean comedy.

All Fools is based on elements taken from three separate plays by the Roman dramatist Terence, a favorite source of playwrights of the Elizabethan and Jacobean period. The main plot, contrasting two fathers, Gostanzo and Marc Antonio, and their two sons, Valerio and Rinaldo respectively, is adapted from the comedy Heautontimorumenos (163 b.c.e.; The Self-Tormentor, 1598). Substantial additional material is also taken from two other plays by Terence, Adelphoe (160 b.c.e.; The Brothers, 1598) and Eunuchus (163 b.c.e.; The Eunuch, 1598). In addition, Chapman freely adds to his plot, introducing figures of contemporary satire such as the notary and the doctor, in order to skewer the types so prevalent in the comedies of the period.

Chapman does more than simply translate and adapt the classical Roman comedies. He substantially revises and expands his original sources, making the major individual characters more rounded and providing them with additional motivations. While this has the effect of making the comedy more believable and substantial, it also allows Chapman to introduce a moral dimension to the play that is lacking in Terence.

The stock figures of the Roman comedy are guided by simple and often base motivations, in particular lust and avarice. Chapman’s characters, on the other hand, are imbued with the wealth of the Christian and humanist traditions, which makes them more honorable, attractive, and sympathetic. For example, Rinaldo, younger brother of Fortunio, is based on the scheming slave who sets into motion and then continues through his machinations the dizzying round of events in The Self-Tormentor. In the Roman play, the slave is an essentially stock character rather than an individual; he is an amoral trickster, witty and clever, whose purpose is to advance the plot in a fairly predictable fashion. In All Fools, on the other hand, Rinaldo is elevated to the status of family member. He is an accomplished scholar and has a complex moral code that, while it allows him to fool others, allows him to fool his family in the service of love and affection. His tricks allow the pair of lovers to live together despite the disapproval of their fathers. In Chapman’s play, there is a substance to Rinaldo that, ultimately, has a moral basis. He is much more than a trickster, and if he is at times a con man, he is usually in the service of morally laudable goals.

This same higher degree of motivation in Chapman’s play is also seen in Valerio, Rinaldo’s friend. Although Valerio initially appears to other characters and to the audience as only a dandy, given to music, poetry, dancing, and flirting, he also comes to express, in his speeches and in his actions, a sincere neo-Platonic idealism. Valerio believes that devotion to love is a ladder by which human beings can transcend their mortal limitations and gain greater knowledge and excellence.

Chapman makes outstanding use of language and theatrical staging in establishing these characters and presenting the action of the play. In Terence’s original, the humor is derived mainly from the plot, which is complex to the point of confusion and complicated beyond either rationality or realism. By grounding his comedy on sympathetic characters, Chapman makes the multiple tricks and deceptions practiced in the play understandable, humorous, and believable. At the play’s end, for example, Gostanzo, Valerio’s father, learns at last that Valerio is really married to Gratiana and Fortunio is wed to Bellanora. Gostanzo’s learning that what he believed throughout the play is actually false is a comedic revelation that leads to a final thematic and moral development. Gostanzo realizes that he is unable to control the young lovers; he must simply accept them with the full measure of his love. Such an ending transcends the moral frame of Terence’s original drama and raises Chapman’s play to a different level.

As typical with Chapman, the language of All Fools is flowing and fluent, easy to grasp. Some critics have objected to this quality in Chapman’s other plays, noting that while his verse carries the sense of meaning remarkably well, it lacks any outstanding or distinctive touches. Such, however, is not the case with All Fools, for the play, although set in Italy, makes extensive use of Elizabethan figures of speech. These bring a strength and sense of immediacy to the dialogue that is sometimes lacking in Chapman’s other dramas. Chapman displays an impressive command of the possibilities of colloquial speech of his times. Ultimately, it is the combination of all of these qualities of characterization, plotting, staging, and language that raises All Fools to its acknowledged level as being among the best, if not the best, of Chapman’s comedies.