George Chapman, an acquaintance of Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson, was a jack-of-all-trades among Elizabethan writers, turning out poetry and translations as well as plays. His reputation was first established as a poet with his The Shadow of Night (1594) and Ovid’s Banquet of Sense (1595), but his only poem much read today was begun by another man: When Marlowe’s Hero and Leander (1598) was left unfinished at his death, Chapman completed the poem by adding the final four books.
By about 1595, Chapman had begun writing for the theater, supplying plays to Philip Henslowe’s company of actors, the Lord Admiral’s Men. Although a contemporary source cites Chapman as a tragic author, whatever works led to that opinion have been lost; some comedies, written by Chapman alone and in collaboration with John Marston and Ben Jonson, are all that survive of his early dramas. In 1599, he left the Lord Admiral’s company but continued to write for the stage until 1614. He made popular translations of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. He may have had financial troubles in his later years; he died in 1634.
Chapman wrote Bussy d’Ambois about 1604. Surprisingly, given the play’s subject, it was probably first acted by Paul’s Boys, a children’s company. Paul’s Boys was one of the then-popular groups of child actors, in this case an outgrowth of the choir school at St. Paul’s Cathedral. The play exists in two printed versions, one produced in 1607 and a later one, printed in 1641, that is noticeably different. Most critics believe the 1641 version derived from a revision of the play made by Chapman himself. The play was extremely successful: It continued to be performed until the closing of the theaters in 1642. After the Restoration of Charles II, the play was revived, and its last performance is recorded in 1691.
Chapman’s play is based on the career of Louis de Clermont, Sieur de Bussy d’Amboise, a minor courtier during the reign of Henry III of France. The historical Bussy was widely known in his time and seems to have been every bit the swaggering bravo who appears in Chapman’s play. Known for his dueling, his poetry, and his love affairs, Bussy was murdered by a jealous husband when he was about thirty years old. One might wonder how meaningful tragedy could be made from such unpromising material, but Bussy d’Amboise’s life furnished Chapman with a scarecrow on which to drape his philosophy....
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