George Chapman Biography

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.)