Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2094
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.
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.
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 Eastward Ho!, a far-ranging portrait of London citizenry, on which Chapman collaborated with Ben Jonson and John Marston. Because King James I was offended by some incidental anti-Scottish satire in it, Chapman, Jonson, and Marston were imprisoned for a while.
The satire in his comedies foreshadows Chapman’s didacticism in the tragedies, and he correctly has been described as the most deliberately didactic tragic playwright of his time. In the dedication to The Revenge of Bussy D’Ambois (c. 1610), Chapman wrote that “material instruction, elegant and sententious excitation to virtue, and deflection from her contrary [are] the soul, limbs, and limits of an authentic tragedy.” Some critics believe that a key aspect of his development as a tragedian is the progressive exclusion from his plays of elements that did not advance his ethical goals.
His first tragedy, Bussy D’Ambois, is a melodrama of the Elizabethan Senecan type and probably was written about 1604, perhaps for the Children of the Chapel soon after Queen Elizabeth I died. One of at least four tragedies he wrote based on French history, it was often revived during Chapman’s lifetime and later in the century, and he revised it at least once. Like his other tragic plays, it dramatizes the interaction between its hero and society, primarily his morality in conflict with social corruption.
The play is set in Paris in the late sixteenth century after a war has ended. Bussy D’Ambois, a soldier at loose ends, is introduced to the court by the king’s brother, a Machiavellian opportunist who aims to usurp the Crown. Bussy is an anomaly at court, an apparently honorable man who eschews political intrigue and sexual hypocrisy, but while striving to remain an outsider, he gains the king’s admiration and thus the disfavor of his sponsor, who sees his protégé as a threat. In spite of himself, Bussy becomes entangled in the political and romantic rivalries, kills rival courtiers, engages in adultery, and finally is murdered by assassins engaged by his rivals. Dying, he compares himself to a thunderbolt that “Look’d to have stuck and shook the firmament.” These last words suggest the complexity of his character: courageous, self-reliant, unspoiled at the start, but also a braggart who, in a world without order and justice, cannot control his passions and falls victim to them. This first of Chapman’s tragedies anticipates the pessimism that prevails in subsequent Jacobean drama, partly because of the difficulty the playwrights had in resolving the moral conflicts they confronted in their society.
The Revenge of Bussy D’Ambois, while not a sequel to the earlier play, represents a continuum. Its main character is Clermont, Bussy’s brother, a stoical, virtuous, and self- sufficient man who believes he has a mandate to avenge his brother’s death; instead of restoring natural law to the corrupt society, however, he ends up committing suicide when a friend and admirer dies. The static play is often labeled a “revenge tragedy” in the manner of Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (c. 1587). It is mostly composed of moralizing, and the standard revenge-tragedy machinery appears only in the fifth act.
Chapman’s other tragedies deserve only passing mention. Caesar and Pompey (c. 1605) is an undramatic collection of introspective homiletic speeches and has three main characters who are either too static or too inconsistently developed to be credible. The Conspiracy and the Tragedy of Charles, Duke of Byron (c. 1607), a play in two parts, is nothing more, according to one critic, than Chapman’s rewriting of the Achilles story “in terms of Christian ethics and the Elizabethan stage” and shows the tragic danger of unbridled egotism. Chapman’s last play, The Tragedy of Chabot, Admiral of France (c. 1621), is of interest because its main character resembles William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus; both are military men who suffer from pride and try to deny their common humanity. Any merits the play has as a stage piece probably derive from James Shirley’s revisions, done after Chapman’s death.
Little is known about Chapman’s later years. He no longer was active as a playwright and may have been too preoccupied by financial and legal difficulties to engage in literary work. He died in London in 1634 and was buried in St. Giles-in-the-Fields. Inigo Jones, the architect who designed masques (court entertainments) by Chapman, did a Roman-style monument.
Chapman’s translations of the classics were his primary literary focus through much of his career, but they have been superseded by later versions and remain useful only because of his infusion of Elizabethan style and sensibility into the ancient works. His comic drama, respected though it was by contemporaries, is understandably forgotten, of interest only because the plays foreshadow humors comedy and other Jacobean stage motifs. Of his tragedies, only Bussy D’Ambois retains a place among the major non-Shakespearean plays of the period, primarily because of its hero. The tragedies as a whole merit attention, however, because they differ strikingly from others of the period, with the exception of the Roman plays of Samuel Daniel and Ben Jonson, which also examine the effect of greatness upon the political order, how a man’s inner and outer selves often are at war, and how ethical and moral men sometimes betray their beliefs. Heroic ideals are central forces in Chapman’s plots and characters, leading occasionally to major dramatic conflicts, but also slowing the pace of a play to that of a moral interlude or Senecan closet drama. Regrettably, Chapman the philosopher, classicist, and intellectual often got in the way of Chapman the playwright.
Ide, Richard S. Possessed with Greatness: The Heroic Tragedies of Shakespeare and Chapman. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980. Shakespeare and Chapman, who shared an interest in the epic tradition and military heroism, individually wrote a number of tragedies with soldiers as protagonists: Othello, Bussy D’Ambois, Antony and Cleopatra, The Conspiracy and Tragedy of Byron, and Coriolanus. In each, the soldier’s self-conception and aspirations lead him into fatal conflict with society.
MacLure, Millar. George Chapman: A Critical Study. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1966. Valuable for MacLure’s discussion of Chapman’s intellectual development, this book has a useful biographical section and offers balanced assessments of the poetry and plays. MacLure shows how Chapman’s preoccupation with integrity affected his works, particularly the plays.
Rees, Ennis. The Tragedies of George Chapman: Renaissance Ethics in Action. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1954. Rees suggests that Chapman’s pattern in his heroic tragedies was to “juxtapose a reprehensible tragic hero . . . against the ethical code of Christian humanism” and to develop his plots and conflicts from that starting point.
Ribner, Irving. Jacobean Tragedy: The Quest for Moral Order. London: Methuen, 1962. Chapman is one of six playwrights Ribner considers in this examination of how playwrights in an irreligious age strove to find a moral order. The analyses of the tragedies are enlightening and useful for placing Chapman and his works in their moral and religious milieu.
Spivack, Charlotte. George Chapman. New York: Twayne, 1967. An admiring study accessible to the nonspecialist, the book begins with a biographical section and then reviews Chapman’s literary work. Spivack considers him an important poet, a great playwright, and a consistent philosopher—a more favorable assessment than that of other critics.
Waddington, Raymond B. The Mind’s Empire: Myth and Form in George Chapman’s Narrative Poems. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974. Distinguishing Chapman’s verse from metaphysical poetry, to which it often is compared, Waddington sets forth what he sees as Chapman’s poetic identity, grounded in classical philosophy and myth. He examines both the nondramatic verse and Bussy D’Ambois, which “exhibits a close thematic and mythic bond to the early poetry.”
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