Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 985

First performed in 1605, Eastward Ho! is one of the most remarkably successful collaborative efforts in English literature. The talents of three considerably different playwrights—Ben Jonson, Thomas Marston, and George Chapman—went into its creation. Although Jonson and Marston had cooperated before (as well as having periods of intense, often bitter,...

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First performed in 1605, Eastward Ho! is one of the most remarkably successful collaborative efforts in English literature. The talents of three considerably different playwrights—Ben Jonson, Thomas Marston, and George Chapman—went into its creation. Although Jonson and Marston had cooperated before (as well as having periods of intense, often bitter, competition), Eastward Ho! is Chapman’s only known collaboration with other dramatists. The almost seamless blend of the three writers’ different styles and concerns into a single, coherent play is an outstanding achievement.

The immediate impulse for the collaboration was to compete with the immense popular success of Westward Ho! (1604), a comedy of contemporary London life by Thomas Dekker and John Webster that was playing at a rival theater. Several commentators have suggested that a primary reason for the triple collaboration of Chapman, Jonson, and Marston was the need to produce a rival script as quickly as possible. It is likely that the three writers worked on different sections of the drama simultaneously, in order to expedite production.

Although it is impossible to assign definitively acts or scenes to any single one, or even a combination, of the three authors, linguistic and stylistic evidence strongly suggests that Jonson and Marston were largely responsible for the opening and closing sections of the play, where the language is sharper and more satirical, and that Chapman was the author of the middle section, including the major subplot involving Sir Petronel Flash’s relationship with Security, the old usurer, and his wife, Winifred. Despite its highly satirical vein, this middle section, critics have noted, has a more genial and accessible humor, characteristic of Chapman’s other dramas.

The play as a whole displays a remarkable unity and cohesion that is rarely found in a work by multiple authors. It has been conjectured that much of this unity is the result of an original plan, or outline, and a final revision, probably done either by Jonson himself or with his close supervision. Whatever the case, the play as finally written combines most of the strengths and few of the weaknesses of its three authors.

Eastward Ho! seeks to be a realistic comedy, with characters involved in entertaining but not totally implausible situations. The play’s setting was intended to be familiar to its contemporary audience. In a sense, it is a combination of the city comedy play, based on London life, and the comedy of humors, based on individuals who represent types of human personality. In a comedy of humors, the major characters are motivated by their particular ruling passion, or humor (greed, lust, phobias of one kind or another, and so on). The work also has a strong moralistic vein, which was characteristic of the period and which no doubt reflects Marston’s and Jonson’s satirical viewpoints.

One such expression of views in Eastward Ho! was construed as an insult to the Scots in general and by extension to King James I himself, who had recently come to the English throne. The offending passage was the reason for Chapman and Jonson being arrested and imprisoned for a time—although, ironically, it seems likely that Marston was the actual author of the particular lines. He escaped punishment by prompt flight.

A conventional moral framework guides the characters in the play. Touchstone, the London goldsmith, has two apprentices, Quicksilver and Golding. As their names suggest, the two young men have vastly different personalities. Quicksilver is an aimless wastrel who ends the play as a prison inmate. Golding is an ambitious, hardworking lad. Touchstone’s two daughters, Gertrude and Mildred, duplicate this pattern: Gertrude, the older, is vain and pretentious and allows herself to be gulled by Sir Petronel Flash. Mildred, engaged to Golding, is chaste and responsible. While some may see Golding and Mildred as too virtuous to be true, and unsympathetic in their relentless goodness and self-conscious morality, they do represent conventional ideas of proper action appropriate to their stations in life, just as Quicksilver and Gertrude are examples from the opposite end of the moral spectrum. By the end of the play, the various characters have received the rewards or punishments due to them and harmony is restored.

The play is also in the tradition of the journey narrative, in which a group of characters come together for a trip and share stories and experiences. In this case, the group is heading east, going down the Thames River for a variety of reasons. For example, Sir Petronel and the two adventurers Scapethrift and Spendall are bound for the new colony of Virginia. Hence the title, Eastward Ho!, which parodies the title of the earlier play, whose characters were headed in the opposite direction. Ironically, the trip is even shorter than the one in Westward Ho!, in which the travelers are shipwrecked and washed up on the shores of the Thames before they leave London.

Another notable feature about the play is its numerous references and parodies of other theatrical pieces, including a number of William Shakespeare’s plays. At one point, the old usurer Security, desperately seeking a way to get down river, cries out, “A boat, a boat, a boat. A full hundred marks for a boat!” In addition to the literary touches, Eastward Ho! is remarkable for the number and range of its proverbial allusions, most of them delivered by Touchstone, and many of them heavily moralistic or didactic in tone. The use of these helps identify Touchstone as an individual character, while the everyday, colloquial flow of the language makes the play more immediate and accessible.

The combination of the two devices of literary allusion and proverbial wisdom draws attention to the play as a self-conscious artifact that is teaching a lesson. In a sense, Eastward Ho! comments on its own purpose as a play—to bring the lives of contemporary Londoners to the stage and to draw entertainment and edification from those lives.

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