George Chapman Biography


(History of the World: The Renaissance)

Article abstract: Best remembered because his translations of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey inspired John Keats to write a well-known sonnet, George Chapman also was a poet and dramatist whose tragedies reflected his classical background.

Early Life

George Chapman was born about 1559, probably in or near Hitchin, Hertfordshire, England, where his well-connected family had lived for decades. His father, Thomas Chapman, was a local landowner; his mother Joan was the daughter of George Nodes, sergeant of the buckhounds to King Henry VIII and later monarchs. On his mother’s side, Chapman was related to Edward Grimeston, whose family served the English government in France and who wrote A General Inventory of the History of France (1607). The Grimeston relationship probably nurtured Chapman’s interest in France and may explain why most of his tragedies are based on French history.

Little is known of his formal education. There is some evidence that he attended both Oxford and Cambridge Universities, but without taking a degree at either. A late seventeenth century account says that at Oxford, Chapman “was observed to be most excellent in the Latin and Greek tongues,” but his contemporaries did not consider him much of a classicist. They claimed he accomplished his translations of Homer only with considerable dependence upon the works of continental Hellenists, and indeed his work is closer in style to the Elizabethan manner than to the Greek.

In about 1583, Chapman entered service in the household of Sir Ralph Sadler, a member of the Privy Council and chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who had an estate in Hitchin. In the late 1580’s or early 1590’s, Chapman volunteered to fight in the Netherlands, and during this period he may have visited France. Upon his return to England in 1600, he was arrested and imprisoned for alleged nonpayment of an old debt, the first of his occasional financial problems. Prince Henry, whom he tutored and who became an early patron, promised Chapman a pension for the Homer translations, but the prince died in 1612, four years before the works were completed, so no money was forthcoming. Probably to escape debtors’ prison, Chapman left London and his successful career as a prolific playwright. Retiring to Hitchin, he lived there in obscurity from 1614 to 1619, working on his translations.

Life’s Work

Chapman’s first published work was the long 1594 poem The Shadow of the Night, followed the next year by Ovid’s Banquet of Sense. Aside from these pieces, his translations of Homer’s epics, and the completion of Christopher Marlowe’s unfinished poem Hero and Leander (1598), Chapman’s major work was for the London stage. He became a dramatist at about the age of forty, at first writing for Philip Henslowe, the leading theater owner and producer of the time, but he soon left Henslowe’s Admiral’s Men and became an independent playwright. He wrote comedies and tragedies for other companies such as the Children of the Chapel (later called the Children of the Revels).

Many of his early plays for Henslowe are not extant, but what may have been his first work for stage does survive: The Blind Beggar of Alexandria, a 1596 comedy featuring a cynical quick- change artist who, living by his wits, assumes different identities and attains money, power, and sex through a complexity of intrigues. The comic hero may be a burlesque of Marlowe’s Tamburlaine and other larger-than-life tragic figures. Chapman’s second play, An Humorous Day’s Mirth, done by Henslowe the following year, foreshadows Ben Jonson’s comedies of humors in its focus upon universal human foibles. The 1599 All Fools, which balances romance and intrigue, was based on two plays by the ancient Roman playwright Terence; it has as its main character a young man who aims to make his fortune by tricking others but who in the end is gulled by one of his victims. The jealous husband subplot of All Fools would become a commonplace in Jacobean comedy. In his early years as playwright, Chapman must have written other comedies as well as tragedies that have not survived, because Francis Meres in Palladis Tamia (1598) labels him among the leading dramatists in both genres.

Though he wrote mainly tragedies after the turn of the century, Chapman continued to write comedies, including The Gentleman Usher (1606), Monsieur D’Olive (1606), May- Day (1611), and The Widow’s Tears (1612). The first of these is notable for its blending of serious and comic elements in the manner of Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher’s tragicomedies, and it portends Chapman’s increasingly sardonic attitude toward people’s flaws. The last is the most serious of his comedies, presenting a society beset by chaos and corruption, quite the antithesis of the Homeric virtues Chapman celebrates in his translations, but similar to the world he presents in the tragedies. One other comedy warrants mention: The 1605...

(The entire section is 2094 words.)

George Chapman Biography

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Little is known of George Chapman’s life before the publication of The Shadow of Night. He was born near Hitchin, a town in rural Herfordshire, England, around 1559. His parents were Thomas and Joan Chapman. Thomas was wealthy, and Joan was the daughter of George Nodes, who had served Henry VIII. Chapman’s older brother, Thomas, inherited nearly all the family estate, and Chapman was in financial straits for most of his adult life.

In about 1574, George Chapman may have attended a university, possibly Oxford. If he did so, he did not attend for long. He eventually joined Sir Ralph Sabler’s household and was there until 1583 or 1585. From 1591 to 1592, he served in the battles against Spain in the Low Countries. After returning to England, Chapman fell under the influence of a group of prominent young men that included Christopher Marlowe and was nominally led by Sir Walter Ralegh. Their theories about philosophy and the occult provide much of the substance of Chapman’s first poem, The Shadow of Night. With the publication of this poem and Ovid’s Banquet of Sense (1595), Chapman became a prominent poet, but he remained poor.

Much of Chapman’s adult life was marred by periodic imprisonment and battles with creditors. He had bad luck with his patrons, and his plays, even when successful, did not pay him enough to achieve permanent security. In 1600, he was jailed on fraudulent charges of failing to pay his debts. After certain passages of Eastward Ho! were perceived...

(The entire section is 628 words.)

George Chapman Biography

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Although George Chapman was born into a fairly wealthy and well-connected family, it was his fate to suffer poverty because he was the younger son. Not much is known about his early years. He spent some time at Oxford but did not take a degree there. After a brief period of service in the household of a nobleman, he saw military action on the Continent, participating in the Low Country campaigns of 1591-1592. His first literary accomplishment was the publication of The Shadow of Night, an esoteric poem reflecting his association with a group of erudite young scholars, including Sir Walter Ralegh, all of whom reputedly dabbled in the occult. His publication of a continuation of Marlowe’s Hero and Leander clearly established his relationship with the ill-fated younger playwright.

His own early career as a playwright barely supported him, and he was imprisoned for debt in 1600. After his release, he attempted to supplement his income from the stage by seeking patronage for his nondramatic poetry. The youthful Prince Henry, a genuine patron of the arts, offered to support Chapman’s proposed translation of the complete works of Homer. Unfortunately, the death of the young prince put an end to such hopes, and Chapman was never to be completely free from the specter of poverty. When he collaborated with Ben Jonson and John Marston on the city comedy Eastward Ho! (pr., pb. 1605), Chapman found himself in prison again, this time for...

(The entire section is 437 words.)

George Chapman Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

George Chapman was an important poet, dramatist, and translator during the English Renaissance. He is best remembered as the translator of the works of Homer. His massive accomplishment in the field of drama is respected by scholars, and his original poetry has attracted serious critical attention.

Although the date of his birth, near Hitchin, Hertfordshire, is not certain, he was probably a little older than William Shakespeare and more than a dozen years older than Ben Jonson, his longtime friend and sometime enemy. According to seventeenth century historian Anthony à Wood, Chapman attended one of the universities. Afterward he may have served in the Netherlands with the forces of Sir Francis Vere; if so, he shared...

(The entire section is 524 words.)