George Chapman

Start Free Trial

George Chapman Drama Analysis

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

George Chapman’s plays are diverse in structure, topic, and style, yet they are united by his interests in learning and learned people, his dismay at the unfairness of human society, and his moral beliefs. Beginning with boisterous and exuberant comedy, moving through satire and tragicomedy, then through violently dynamic tragedies, and ending with philosophical tragedies, Chapman’s plays reveal a remarkably coherent ethos and a mastery of poetry and prose that allows for wonderful diversity in the dramas.

The Blind Beggar of Alexandria and An Humourous Day’s Mirth

The first extant play by Chapman, The Blind Beggar of Alexandria, exists only in a truncated version. It was very popular and was often performed, but only its subplot was printed in 1598. Its main plot can be interpolated only from fragments found in the subplot’s story of Iris, the blind beggar. It shares with the play that followed it, An Humourous Day’s Mirth, the distinction of being a comedy of humours—a play in which each of the characters represents an aspect of human nature, such as greed or sloth. Although Ben Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour (pr. 1598) is sometimes credited with being the first comedy of humors, both of Chapman’s plays predate it. Therefore, Chapman’s first two plays have historical importance as the earliest extant examples of an important late Renaissance form of comedy, although the question of who actually invented the form is problematic. This form remained important for Jonson throughout his career, but it was abandoned by Chapman after 1602.

Neither The Blind Beggar of Alexandria nor An Humourous Day’s Mirth is important for its artistry. Both are funny, and both have intricate plots typical of much of Chapman’s comedy. The first shows his use of classical sources for inspiration, also typical of much of his dramatic writing. The Blind Beggar of Alexandria is peopled by Greek characters—King Ptolemy, Aegiale, Cleanthes, Prince Doricles, and others. The elements of Greek comedy, such as magic, are combined with Renaissance themes, such as comedy inspired by social manners. In his later plays, Chapman combined classical and contemporary forms to refresh stock ideas. An Humourous Day’s Mirth is a weak play overcrowded with superfluous characters and is awkwardly constructed. Its significance for Chapman’s later achievements is found in its scholarly heroine Florilla, whose true learning is contrasted with the pretenses of those around her. The assuming by characters of false humors, such as melancholy, in order to appear learned or sensitive, and the gulling of fools are reminiscent of the comedies of Jonson, but the concern for genuine learning, as personified by Florilla, distinguishes Chapman’s work. Other playwrights of Chapman’s day, including Jonson, mocked false learning and admired true scholarship, but none examined them as consistently as Chapman.

All Fools

An Humourous Day’s Mirth was followed by a minor masterpiece of comedy, All Fools. The play is about Rinaldo, a schemer roughly related to the Vice of medieval morality plays and to the intriguing servant of classical drama; Valerio, Rinaldo’s friend and favored son of Gostanzo; and Fortunio, Rinaldo’s virtuous brother. Around these three young men revolve their fathers, a jealous husband, and the women—Gratiana and Bellanora—whom Valerio and Fortunio love. The intricate plot of the play is representative of comedies of its day. Rinaldo schemes to dupe various characters, and according to the weaknesses in their personalities, various characters are duped. Some, such as Gostanzo, think that they are gulling others even as they are gulled.

The plot of Chapman’s All Fools comes mainly from Terence’s comedy Heautontimorumenos (163 b.c.e.; The Self-Tormentor , 1598), although Chapman reworked...

(This entire section contains 3509 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

it into a play that is more Elizabethan than classical in character and colored it with a strong moral point of view not found in Terence’s play. Gostanzo is deluded about himself and his son Valerio; he believes himself to be wise and his son to be virtuous when, in fact, he is foolish and his son is a profligate gambler who is heavily in debt. Valerio marries Gratiana but keeps the marriage secret from Gostanzo because she is not wealthy enough for Gostanzo’s approval and because he is supposed to be innocent of worldly matters such as male-female relationships. Gostanzo also has a daughter, Bellanora, who loves Fortunio, a modest and virtuous young man who also is not wealthy enough to satisfy Gostanzo. Once, when Valerio, Gratiana, Fortunio, and Rinaldo are together, they see Gostanzo approaching them, and all save Rinaldo flee. Rinaldo tells Gostanzo that Gratiana and Fortunio are secretly married and wish to keep the marriage secret from Fortunio’s father, Marc Antonio. Gostanzo believes Rinaldo’s story and tells it to Marc Antonio at the first opportunity, even though he had promised to keep the story secret. Under Rinaldo’s influence, Gostanzo convinces Marc Antonio that Fortunio is in danger of becoming a dissolute young man and that Valerio might prove to be a good influence on him if Fortunio and Gratiana lived in Gostanzo’s home. Thus, without his knowing it, Gostanzo arranges for Valerio and Gratiana to live together and leaves Fortunio free to court Bellanora.

All Fools might remain a funny but unexceptional comedy, but Chapman was enough of an artist to allow his characters to learn, grow, and change. The plot becomes increasingly complex as Gostanzo suspects that Valerio is having a love affair with Fortunio’s wife (who is really Valerio’s wife), and under Rinaldo’s influence, he pretends to Marc Antonio that Gratiana is really Valerio’s wife (which she is, but Gostanzo does not know it) and persuades Marc Antonio to take Gratiana into his house and to allow Valerio to visit her. Gostanzo, proud of his wisdom, believes he has gulled Marc Antonio. The plot expands to include Cornelio, a jealous husband, and Gazetta, his wife. Rinaldo tricks Cornelio into believing that Gazetta has a lover, and Cornelio attacks the supposed lover and arranges to divorce his wife. In the meantime, Gostanzo is tricked into giving his blessing to the marriage of Valerio and Gratiana, believing that he is tricking Marc Antonio because he thinks Fortunio is married to Gratiana. Cornelio learns of Rinaldo’s deceit and decides to trick Rinaldo and Valerio. He tells Rinaldo that Valerio has finally been arrested for his debts and is held at the Half Moon Tavern. Rinaldo and Gostanzo rush to the tavern and find Valerio gaming and drinking. Gostanzo, learning of his son’s profligacy and recognizing the trick that has been played on him, is at first enraged. He discovers that Fortunio and Bellanora have also married and that he is not as clever and wise as he thought. He has acquired enough wisdom to recognize his own limitations, however, and he accepts what has happened. With Cornelio’s reconciliation with Gazetta, all parties are reconciled, and All Fools ends with its characters happy.

Although the play’s ending seems a bit contrived, Gostanzo’s growth is believable. His pride was immoral and helped to drive Valerio and Rinaldo to their deceitful behavior. Rinaldo is also proud; he takes pride in his ability to manipulate Gostanzo, Marc Antonio, and Cornelio. The comeuppance delivered by Cornelio is a necessary lesson for Rinaldo, who learns that he, too, can be tricked. Happiness is possible at the end of the play because the characters learn to accept themselves and others as they are. Pride and trickery had prevented such acceptance.

May Day

All Fools has much charm and much good comedy; its mad plot can still entertain a modern audience. May Day also retains the ability to entertain, although it is not as strong a play as All Fools. In May Day, the schemer is Lodovico; other figures based on classical conventions appear in the play, including Quintiliano, a representative of the miles gloriosus (braggart soldier) commonly found in classical comedies. As in All Fools, conventions, classical or otherwise, serve as foundations for Chapman’s development of complex characterizations and his sophisticated comedy. Like All Fools, May Day is a comedy of humors; Chapman wrote one more such play, Sir Giles Goosecap. Although still amusing, it lacks the spirited activity of the other plays. By 1602, Chapman was working on a new kind of comedy.

The Gentleman Usher

A tragicomedy is a play that has a plot like that of a tragedy but ends like a comedy. It is a genre that allows for much variety in plot and character, and one that can incorporate elements of other genres, such as romantic comedy. Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure (pr. 1604), for example, could be classified as a tragicomedy because its plot focuses on the possible execution of an innocent man and the potential debauchment of a chaste woman. The potential tragic ending is averted only when the duke of Vienna reappears as himself. Of Chapman’s tragicomedies, The Gentleman Usher is notable for its excellent characterizations and variety of action; it does not match Shakespeare’s plays for depth of feeling or suspenseful plotting, but it compares well with any Elizabethan comedy in its richness of ideas and events. On the other hand, Monsieur d’Olive is a good play but not as well designed as its predecessor. It is notable more for its subplot than for its romantic central plot.

As in All Fools, notions of what constitutes virtuous conduct are called into question by The Gentleman Usher in the conflict between a father and his son. This time, the father and son both love the same woman. The son, Prince Vincentio, must, like Valerio, hide his intentions and behavior from his father, Duke Alphonso. Like Gostanzo, Alphonso is deluded about his own nature and that of his son. The rivalry of father and son is played out in a plot of treachery and danger. In All Fools, the scheming Rinaldo was mostly playful; he did some harm but was not inherently malicious. His counterpart in The Gentleman Usher is Medice, who is vengeful, ambitious, and willing to murder to get what he wants.

The malice of Medice is balanced by the pompous foolishness of Bassiolo, usher to Count Lasso, the father of Margaret, who is loved by Alphonso and Vincentio. Bassiolo fancies himself to be a schemer and agrees to be the go-between for Margaret and Vincentio after Vincentio flatters him. The bumbling Bassiolo provides much of the play’s laughter, but even in his character, there is an element of menace. While Vincentio has been privately making fun of Bassiolo, he and his friend, Count Strozza, have also mocked Medice. Favorite of Alphonso, and ambitious, the proud Medice is angered by the two men. He graphically shows how the seemingly innocent conniving of Vincentio can be turned into tragedy. Alphonso has arranged for a boar hunt near the home of Count Lasso and Margaret; Strozza joins him in the hunt. Medice arranges for Strozza to be shot by an arrow, and Strozza barely lives. This near-tragedy is a prelude to a seemingly complete tragedy. The foolish Bassiolo comes to know that he has been tricked. Forced by Vincentio to continue as go-between, he overplays his role, and Alphonso and Medice discover that Vincentio has secretly courted Margaret. Vincentio flees, and Margaret, who has promised herself to Vincentio, covers her face with an ointment that disfigures it horribly; she hopes to repel Alphonso with her hideous looks. Only a doctor, acting as a deus ex machina, saves a comic ending by curing her disfigurement after Vincentio has shown that he loves her regardless of her looks. Medice is exiled and the other characters are reconciled.

The characters of The Gentleman Usher are well drawn, with the villain Medice comparing well even with the villains of Shakespeare’s comedies. The play is full of activity, merriment, and suspense. Its main plot and subplot are well interwoven, and no event is without importance to the play as a whole. The Gentleman Usher ranks with All Fools as the best of Chapman’s comedies and is representative of the best in English comedic traditions.

Monsieur d’Olive

On the other hand, Monsieur d’Olive is more satiric, with its subplot portraying the silliness of courtly ambassadorships. Its comic variety has been admired by such critics as Algernon Charles Swinburne. It, too, might be well received by a modern audience. Chapman would write only one more comedy, The Widow’s Tears.

Bussy d’Ambois

Chapman’s first tragedies, Bussy d’Ambois and The Conspiracy and Tragedy of Charles, Duke of Byron (consisting of two mated plays, The Conspiracy and The Tragedy), feature angry and robust protagonists whose courage is offset by ignorance of human nature and misguided ambition. Both Bussy d’Ambois and the duke of Byron are betrayed and murdered. Although both plays are good and make for interesting reading, Bussy d’Ambois is superior in thematic construction and dramatic structure.

Bussy gains access to the court of Henry III, king of France, through Monsieur, the king’s brother. A proud man, Bussy rapidly alienates the venal courtiers surrounding the king. He excites the jealousy of the duke of Guise by making pleasant conversation with Guise’s wife, Eleanor, and he persists even after Guise asks him to stop. Bussy also angers the courtiers Barrisor, l’Anou, and Pyrhot, who duel Bussy and two of Bussy’s friends. All are killed save Bussy. Even though his blunt manner of speaking and proud demeanor have resulted in the deaths of five men and jeopardized his own life, Bussy learns little from his experiences. He receives a pardon for the killings from King Henry, who grants the pardon at Monsieur’s behest, and he then begins a love affair with Tamyra, the wife of the count of Montsurry; she is also coveted by Monsieur. The play gains momentum and moves toward a seemingly inevitable conclusion. Bussy becomes the favorite of the king, and Monsieur grows envious of his status in the court.

A friar acts as go-between for Bussy and Tamyra and in a secret chamber invokes spirits to show them the future. They warn Bussy of the conspiracy of Monsieur, Guise, and Montsurry to murder him. Later, Montsurry stabs and then tortures Tamyra on the rack in order to force her to confess to her affair with Bussy. The friar is exposed as the go-between and is killed. His ghost warns Bussy of danger. Proud, headstrong, and not given to thoughtfulness, Bussy ignores all warnings and is tricked by Montsurry into walking into an ambush. He struggles mightily but is mortally wounded; in a gesture of defiance, he dies while leaning on his sword and speaking forgiveness of those who had betrayed him.

Bussy d’Ambois is one of the most popular of Chapman’s plays. Its bloody scenes rival the most awful scenes of the revenge tragedies of the period, and its atmosphere is rank with the corruption and perversity characteristic of the Jacobean theater, but it is superior to most plays of its time in its intellectual themes and fully drawn characters. All Chapman’s tragedies are concerned at least in part with knowledge and the lack of it, especially self-knowledge. None of the characters in Bussy d’Ambois truly understands his or her nature, even after that nature is exposed. Thus, these characters are unable to control events fully. King Henry cannot save his favorite, Monsieur cannot use Bussy to advantage, the friar cannot save himself, Tamyra cannot save her lover, Montsurry is driven to murder, and Bussy walks into his own death trap. Bussy, like Byron in The Conspiracy and Tragedy of Charles, Duke of Byron, is a man of action and forthright in speech and behavior, but he lacks tact and thoughtfulness. Without intellectual substance, he is all bluster and blunder—a killing machine who cannot adequately battle lies, conspiracies, and corruption.

Bussy d’Ambois can be interpreted as an elaborate satire on the Renaissance individualist. Bussy’s blunderings are unheroic and even silly. His loud manner of speaking is more offensive and egotistical than it is honest. The notion that he can reshape society is shown to be foolish by his susceptibility to the trickeries of those who are his moral inferiors. The horrible sufferings of his lover and the deaths of his friends are made to seem pointless by his empty gesture of standing and mouthing clichéd forgiveness as he succumbs to treachery he could easily have avoided if he had taken only a moment to think about what he was doing.

Caesar and Pompey

Chapman’s Caesar and Pompey, The Revenge of Bussy d’Ambois, and The Tragedy of Chabot, Admiral of France complete his study of character and knowledge and give his dramatic canon a well-rounded wholeness. These tragedies lack the dynamism of Chapman’s other plays; they are static and devoted more to contemplation than to action. They make good reading and are moving in their portraits of good, thoughtful men trapped in insane events and corrupt societies.

Caesar and Pompey suffers from a corrupt text. It depicts Cato’s efforts to save Rome from war and Pompey’s downfall: The man of action, Pompey, and the thoughtful man, Cato, both die nobly, with Pompey having learned some wisdom and Cato having learned to act. Their deaths seem futile in terms of Rome’s survival, but they both grow into better, more complete men than they were at the play’s start.

The Revenge of Bussy d’Ambois

Clermont d’Ambois of The Revenge of Bussy d’Ambois is a thoughtful man like Cato, and he is typical of Chapman’s introspective heroes. Scholarly, contemplative, and courageous, Clermont displays the potential weakness of the thoughtful person—he tends to hesitate and to accept evils he might change through well-considered action. A capable fighter, he nevertheless lacks the boldness of his recently murdered brother, Bussy. He does not believe that revenge is a worthy act, but the ghost of his brother exacts from him a promise to avenge his murder. Charlotte, the sister of Clermont and Bussy, shares Bussy’s active and thoughtless nature. She exacts from her husband, Baligny, his promise to avenge Bussy’s murder, and her foolish and poorly considered actions contrast with Clermont’s caution.

Through Baligny, Clermont tries to challenge Montsurry to a duel, but Montsurry is frightened of him and avoids the challenge. Baligny is a malicious man who contrives to make trouble for those around him. He talks his way into King Henry III’s confidence by arguing that crimes committed on behalf of a king are justified. The duke of Guise, who has atoned for his role in Bussy’s death, has become Clermont’s friend and a powerful member of the king’s court. While behaving in a friendly manner toward Guise, Baligny encourages King Henry to fear and distrust the duke and the duke’s friend Clermont. The flatteries and lies of Baligny do not sway Clermont one way or another because of his secure self-knowledge, but Clermont’s insistence on not thinking ill of his brother-in-law makes him susceptible to trickery. When warned that Baligny has arranged his ambush, Clermont repeats his brother’s error and ignores the warning. When ambushed, Clermont fights with great strength, drives away his attackers, and flees on foot until exhaustion forces him to stop. Once captured, he is surprisingly calm and accepting of his fate.

The duke of Guise persuades King Henry, who often vacillates under the influence of others, to release Clermont from prison, and Clermont goes to Guise’s house. There, the ghost of Bussy again urges revenge. King Henry, angered by Guise’s defense of Clermont, orders the duke’s death. The king’s men murder him as he comes to visit Henry.

Tamyra, wife of Montsurry and once Bussy’s lover, helps Clermont enter Montsurry’s house. Inside, his sister Charlotte has been stopped by Bussy’s ghost in her own scheme to kill Montsurry. In a duel, Montsurry fights well but is slain by Clermont. A short time later, Clermont learns of the death of his close friend Guise, and in grief, he kills himself.

Clermont is a fine figure. The play is an exploration of his character and the nature of worldly knowledge and self-knowledge. The focus on Clermont’s character, however, detracts from the action of the play. Some scenes are set pieces for expositions, and the action scenes come as bursts in the middle of a contemplative play. Clermont is like Shakespeare’s Hamlet in his tendency to think rather than act, and like Hamlet, he is urged into revenge by a ghost. Unlike Hamlet, he exacts revenge not in an outburst forced by events but in a planned duel. In addition, Clermont is a man who does not worry about fate. Although introspective, he does not waffle in indecision; rather, he does not act because he does not want to act.


George Chapman Poetry: British Analysis