George Chapman Chapman, George - Essay


(Drama Criticism)

George Chapman 1559?-1634

English playwright, poet, and translator.

The following entry presents information on Chapman's plays through 1995.

Remembered as one of the most cerebral of the English Renaissance dramatists, Chapman maintained high artistic standards for himself and for his contemporaries based on a solid foundation of aesthetics found in works of classical antiquity. He is chiefly remembered for complex, philosophically and politically charged tragedies such as Bussy D'Ambois (1604), The Conspiracy and Tragedy of Charles, Duke of Byron (1607-08), and The Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois (1610-11). Commentators have noted that a central concern in Chapman's works is that of the role of the individual in society, in which the dramatist often imbues his tragic heroes with characteristics of classical Stoicism to accentuate their innate, natural virtuosity within a corrupt social order. Indeed, some critics have maintained that Chapman mastered the depiction of Stoic philosophy in his dramas, surpassing such illustrious contemporaries as Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, and Ben Jonson. “Unlike any of them,” Marvin J. LaHood has observed, Chapman “grew towards a complete acceptance of Senecan Stoicism and tried to incorporate his beliefs into his dramas. The result was the creation of an Elizabethan hero unique in his strict adherence to a classic creed.”

Biographical Information

Chapman's life is not well documented. He was born in Hitchen, Hertfordshire, probably around the year 1559, the second son of a prosperous yeoman and copyholder. His mother was the daughter of a royal huntsman at the court of Henry VIII. Little is known about Chapman's formative years, though it is presumed that he attended the grammar school at Hitchen. Contemporary accounts also indicate that he attended Oxford beginning in 1574, where he is said to have excelled in Greek and Latin. After matriculating at Oxford, Chapman gained employment with a prominent nobleman, Sir Ralph Sadler, with whom he served from 1583 to 1585. Subsequently, he enlisted in Sir Francis Vere's military expedition into the United Provinces, which were engaged in the Eighty Years War. Upon returning to England in 1594, Chapman established residence in London and published his first work, The Shadow of Night: Containing Two Poeticall Hymnes. During this time, he entered Sir Walter Raleigh's circle known as “The School of Night.” This literary group was recognized for its devotion to scientific and philosophical speculation, though it occasionally dabbled in the occult. Toward the end of the 1590s, Chapman also debuted as a dramatist with a pair of comedies, The Blind Beggar of Alexandria (1596) and A Humorous Day's Mirth (1597). These plays were written for the Lord Admiral's Men, a major theatrical company in London. Other comedies followed, written for similar private theatrical companies. By the close of the Elizabethan period, Chapman was widely recognized as a leading dramatist and poet, yet the meager income from the production of his plays forced him to live in poverty. In 1599, his misfortunes led him to relinquish his claim to the family estate for a small cash settlement. The following year, Chapman was imprisoned for debt, the unwitting victim of a fraudulent money-lender.

With the accession of James I to the throne in 1603, Chapman's fortunes suddenly changed when he was given a position in the household of Prince Henry. He continued composing plays, including his last major comedy, Eastward Ho (1605), written in collaboration with Ben Jonson and John Marston. The play's sarcastic political aspersions against policies favored by James I resulted in imprisonment for Chapman and Jonson, though both were soon released. During this period, Chapman also began writing his greatest tragedies, including Bussy D'Ambois, the two-part Conspiracy and Tragedy of Charles, Duke of Byron, and The Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois. He also undertook the project of translating into modern English the classical Greek works of Homer. Chapman's translation of the first twelve books of the Iliad appeared in 1611, prefaced by a dedication to Prince Henry, who had endorsed the work with the promise of three hundred pounds and a pension. However, when the young prince died suddenly in 1612, his father failed to fulfill Henry's promise to Chapman. A similar fate befell Chapman's hope in his last patron, Robert Carr, later Earl of Somerset, whose career at court was effectively terminated due to a series of marital scandals. In effect, Chapman remained without a patron for his entire literary career, the financial and professional consequences of which were disastrous. Around 1613, he wrote two more tragedies, Caesar and Pompey and The Tragedy of Chabot, Admiral of France, though there is no indication that they were ever performed in his lifetime. He also completed another translation of Homer's poetry by 1624, but his last few decades were nevertheless spent in relative obscurity. He died on May 12, 1634.

Major Works

Although rarely performed today, Chapman's plays enjoyed considerable success on the London stage during his lifetime. While it is true that the playwright borrowed heavily from classical sources, he nevertheless succeeded in creating memorable, crowd-pleasing characters who resonated with contemporary theatergoers. Chapman was strongly influenced by the literary principles of Italian Renaissance writers such as Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola, who believed that true artistic style should be modeled after works of classical antiquity. He was particularly interested in the philosophy of Stoicism, or the idea that a fully evolved human being should be free from passion, emotionally temperate, and submissive to natural law. While Chapman's reliance on classical sources was not in itself an artistic departure from his contemporaries, he did innovate English Renaissance tragedy by employing recent French history as the subject matter in several of his dramas. Bussy D'Ambois dramatizes the life and execution of a notorious duelist and agitator in the court of Henry IV, who still ruled in France at the time of the play's production. In his tragedy, Chapman imbues the reckless historical figure with the mythic qualities of Hercules and Prometheus, casting Bussy as a self-made, towering individual whose virtue poses a threat to the corrupt French court. However, Bussy's mythic grandeur is undercut by an Achillean short temper, which is used against him by the courtiers to bring about his tragic demise. Similarly, The Conspiracy and Tragedy of Charles, Duke of Byron examines the intrigues and eventual execution of a popular French general and courtier who embodies some of the same classical attributes as Bussy. In Byron, Chapman expands on the nascent theme of the individual versus society begun in Bussy D'Ambois, emphasizing the conflict between the traditional feudal ethics of Byron and the Machiavellian political values of Henry IV and his court. In The Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois, Chapman invents a fictional brother, Clermont, for the historical Bussy, who is urged by Bussy's ghost to exact revenge for his death. In this play, Chapman contributes to the popular stage convention of the Elizabethan revenger made famous by Shakespeare's Hamlet; however, Chapman introduces a new level of sophistication and refinement to the genre in that he makes Clermont a follower of Stoicism, who must choose between opposing philosophical beliefs and familial obligations. Chapman's later tragedies, Caesar and Pompey and The Tragedy of Chabot, Admiral of France, further elaborate on his interest in exploring the paradox of reconciling the stoic hero with his corrupt society. Indeed, these plays underscore the dramatist's pessimistic conception that there is an irreconcilable correlation between classical ethical ideals and the corrupt political values of his own time.

Critical Reception

Unlike his tragedies, Chapman's comedies have received scant critical approval despite their general appeal with Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences. While it is true that some commentators have demonstrated that Chapman innovated such genres as the “comedy of humors” (later perfected by Ben Jonson) in A Humorous Day's Mirth and English tragicomedy in The Gentleman Usher (1602-03), others have continued to malign the aesthetic scope of the plays as unoriginal, stylistically confusing, and dramatically incoherent. If critics were generally unsatisfied with the quality of Chapman's comedies, they nearly all recognized the playwright's sophisticated, intellectual, almost doctrinal transformation of classical ideals into compelling tragedies. Yet despite the significant amount of attention devoted to Chapman's major tragedies, there is surprisingly little consensus about what Chapman's artistic objectives were in writing them. Perhaps the most prominent object of critical discussion surrounds Chapman's conception of Stoicism as it is expressed in such dramas as Bussy D'Ambois, The Conspiracy and Tragedy of Charles, Duke of Byron, The Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois, and Caesar and Pompey. The critical debate includes opinions on such issues as the ways in which Chapman manipulated the classical Stoic aesthetic to conform to his Jacobean sensibilities; Chapman's complicated attempt to reconcile the conflict between the contrasting classical ideals of Stoicism and Neoplatonism; and the extent to which Chapman relied on Stoicism in the creation of his tragic heroes. Indeed, one critic, Richard S. Ide (1984) downplayed the significance of Clermont, Chapman's most Stoic tragic hero in The Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois, positing instead that the dramatist was more concerned with renovating the conventional depiction of the Elizabethan revenge play with his own “neoplatonic esthetic” about how the genre should be represented. Another critic, Ennis Rees (1954), proposed that Chapman prominently incorporates the ideals of Christian humanism into his tragedies with only a minor emphasis on Stoicism. Commentators have observed that Chapman's preoccupation with Stoicism belies a pessimistic interest in the individual and his place in society. These critics have pointed out that the playwright ingeniously developed complex conflicts between an individual (portrayed as a virtuous, plain-spoken—if not too proud—outsider) and society (depicted as the court degraded by intrigue, immorality, and corruption). Further, they have asserted that this paradox is evident in all of Chapman's major tragedies, where the individual eventually succumbs to the social corruption, dies trying to fight it, or both. Chapman's most enduring example of such an individual is the tragic figure of Bussy D'Ambois. As Roger Truscott Burbridge noted, “Bussy's failure can only be ascribed, I think, to the practical impossibility of any positive ideal action in a society riddled with intrigue and artifice; Bussy is heroic material in the wrong place.”

Principal Works

(Drama Criticism)

The Blind Beggar of Alexandria 1596

A Humorous Day's Mirth 1597

All Fools 1601

May-Day 1601-02

Sir Giles Goosecap 1602

The Gentleman Usher 1602-03

Bussy D'Ambois 1604

Monsieur D'Olive 1604-05

The Widow's Tears 1604-05

Eastward Ho [with Ben Jonson and John Marston] 1605

The Conspiracy and Tragedy of Charles, Duke of Byron 1607-08

The Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois 1610-11

Caesar and Pompey c. 1613


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Millar MacLure (essay date 1966)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: MacLure, Millar. “Tragedy.” In George Chapman: A Critical Study, pp. 108-57. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1966.

[In the following essay, MacLure provides a comprehensive survey of Chapman's tragedies, demonstrating that the playwright displays a marked conflict between pedantic knowledge and creative imagination in his works.]

Chapman's definition of tragedy is frequently quoted, with or without the reservation that it does not necessarily describe his own contributions to the genre:

Poor envious souls they are that cavil at truth's want in these natural fictions; material instruction, elegant and sententious...

(The entire section is 19966 words.)

Marvin J. LaHood (essay date 1967)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: LaHood, Marvin J. “Chapman's Stoicism.” Lock Haven Review, no. 9 (1967): 8-15.

[In the essay below, LaHood discusses Chapman's experimentation with Senecan Stoicism from inception in Bussy D'Ambois to maturation in The Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois.]

George Chapman (1559-1634) is sometimes ignored, often misunderstood, and almost always underrated by literary historians. His life spans the rise, fruition, and decay of the greatest dramatic age in the history of English literature. A student at Oxford, he may have attended Cambridge as well. He did not begin to write plays until he was thirty-seven; this is reflected in the highly circumspective tone of...

(The entire section is 2316 words.)

David C. MacPherson (essay date 1968)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: MacPherson, David C. “Chapman's Adaptations of New Comedy.” In English Miscellany: A Symposium of History Literature and the Arts Vol. 19, edited by Mario Praz, pp. 51-64. Rome: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura, 1968.

[In the following essay, MacPherson examines the satiric aspects of All Fools and May-Day, asserting that Chapman was neither highly imitative of his classical sources nor was he overly influenced by the harsh “comicall satyre” of his peers.]

Although George Chapman is best known for his translations of Homer and for his tragedies, his eight comedies are significant achievements also. Aside from their obvious value as...

(The entire section is 4580 words.)

Gilles D. Monsarrat (essay date 1984)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Monsarrat, Gilles D. “George Chapman: Necessity and Suicide.” In Light from the Porch: Stoicism and English Renaissance Literature Collection Études Anglaises, Vol. 86, pp. 189-221. Paris: Didier-Érudition, 1984.

[In the essay below, Monsarrat maintains that while Chapman created a “full-fledged Stoic” in Clermont in The Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois, there is little evidence to suggest that the playwright utilized Stoic philosophy in any other of his dramatic works.]

George Chapman's early poems and plays do not reveal any interest in Stoic philosophy. The Shadow of Night (1594) was born of the cult of melancholy, a most unstoic attitude....

(The entire section is 15575 words.)

Raymond B. Waddington (essay date 1967)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Waddington, Raymond B. “Prometheus and Hercules: The Dialectic of Bussy D'Ambois.ELH 34, no. 1 (March 1967): 21-48.

[In the following essay, Waddington examines the mythic structure of Bussy D'Ambois, detailing how analogies to Prometheus and Hercules serve to underscore Bussy's tragic failure.]

Bussy D'Ambois projects natural man into the fallen world to demonstrate that he cannot survive by nature alone. The given of man's existence is the world of evil that Chapman anatomized in The Shadow of Night nearly a decade earlier. This pair of hymns, particularly the first, provide a useful gloss upon the dramatic milieu of...

(The entire section is 11129 words.)

Linwood E. Orange (essay date 1969)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Orange, Linwood E. “Bussy D'Ambois: The Web of Pretense.” Southern Quarterly 8, no. 1 (October 1969): 37-56.

[In the essay below, Orange maintains that Chapman intentionally created Bussy as a blunt soldier—a stock character in Elizabethan drama, but never before a protagonist—to establish a clear dichotomy between the forthright tragic hero and the corrupt, deceitful court.]

What is to be thought of a tragic protagonist who speaks derogatorily of persons of high station one moment and the next allies himself with a powerful ambitious lord who promises advancement? Who feels himself so blemished by some casual banter that he brushes apology aside...

(The entire section is 6257 words.)

Roger Truscott Burbridge (essay date 1972)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Burbridge, Roger Truscott. “Speech and Action in Chapman's Bussy D'Ambois.Tennessee Studies in Literature 17 (1972): 59-65.

[In the following essay, Burbridge argues that despite Chapman's efforts to unite language and action in Bussy D'Ambois, he succeeds in representing “the constructive force of virtue only in words, not in deeds.”]

Early in the first act of Bussy D'Ambois, Bussy justifies his entering the corrupt world of the court by announcing:

I am for honest actions, not for great:
If I may bring up a new fashion,
And rise in Court with virtue, speed
                    his [Monsieur's] plough.

(The entire section is 2593 words.)

Richard S. Ide (essay date 1980)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Ide, Richard S. “Bussy D'Ambois and the Quest for Virtue.” In Possessed with Greatness: The Heroic Tragedies of Chapman and Shakespeare, pp. 75-101. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1980.

[In the essay below, Ide discusses Bussy as a complex tragic hero who—through his quest for virtue—reestablishes heroic idealism in a society degraded by pessimism and moral corruption.]

The term “heroic tragedy” seems especially appropriate to Chapman's Bussy D'Ambois, for it reflects accurately both the moral ambiguity of the soldier-hero's behavior and the nature of his tragic conflict with society. Bussy's attempt to unmetaphor...

(The entire section is 12946 words.)

James N. Krasner (essay date 1989)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Krasner, James N. “The Tragedy of Bussy D'Ambois and the Creation of Heroism.” Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England: An Annual Gathering of Research, Criticism, and Reviews, Vol. 4, edited by Leeds Barroll, pp. 107-21. New York: AMS Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Krasner argues that Chapman attempts to reconcile two conflicting conceptions of the artist in Bussy D'Ambois: “the artist as political myth-maker and the artist as aesthetic creator.”]

Bussy D'Ambois has frequently been referred to as a hero of epic proportions. The relationship between Chapman's understanding of the epic hero and his portrayal of Bussy, a tragic...

(The entire section is 6675 words.)

Patricia Demers (essay date 1975)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Demers, Patricia. “The Conspiracy and Tragedy of Charles Duke of Byron: The Evaporation of Honour.” Renaissance and Reformation 11, no. 2 (1975): 85-96.

[In the essay below, Demers examines evaporation imagery in Byron, relating it to the protagonist's gradual tragic fall through the course of the two dramas.]

… see in his revolt how honour's flood
Ebbs into air, when men are great, not good.(1)

Charles de Gontaut, Duke of Byron, is no reincarnation of Bussy D'Ambois. The superficial similarities he bears to Chapman's earlier hero only serve to outline more clearly the distance between them. The Prologue awards him the status...

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Jane Melbourne Craig (essay date spring 1982)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Craig, Jane Melbourne. “Chapman's Two Byrons.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 22, no. 2 (spring 1982): 271-83.

[In the following essay, Craig maintains that Chapman intentionally depicted Byron as a divided character who presents a constantly shifting perspective between the concepts of Platonism and Christianity.]

The protagonist of George Chapman's The Conspiracy and Tragedy of Charles Duke of Byron (1608) is an arrogant, imperceptive military leader who conspires with the enemies of his good king to renew a disastrous civil war, yet delivers brilliant speeches that proclaim the dignity of man. It is unfruitful to compare him to other...

(The entire section is 5471 words.)

Alexander Leggatt (essay date 1984)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Leggatt, Alexander. “Tone and Structure in Chapman's Byron.Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 24, no. 2 (spring 1984): 307-26.

[In the essay below, Leggatt posits that Byron should be more fully considered as two separate plays rather than as one long ten-act drama, arguing that Chapman employed a distinct shift in tone from the comedic to the tragic in order to distinguish the two plays.]

To a degree unusual in the criticism of Elizabethan two-part plays, Chapman's The Conspiracy and Tragedy of Charles, Duke of Byron has been treated as a single work. Derek Crawley describes it simply as “a ten-act play,”1 and...

(The entire section is 7502 words.)

A. R. Braunmuller (essay date 1992)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Braunmuller, A. R. “Rare Virtues and Their Impair in The Tragedy of Charles, Duke of Byron.” In Natural Fictions: George Chapman's Major Tragedies, pp. 83-107. London: Associated University Presses, 1992.

[In the following essay, Braunmuller analyzes the “intellectual complexity” of Byron, detailing how Chapman employed various themes, images, and forms of dialogue to create an incoherent milieu in which “Byron's character and Henry's court make perception and judgment unstable and shifting.”]

Byron's Conspiracy ends with a curious comic scene, displaying Savoy's discomfiture when he fails in sophisticated badinage with three...

(The entire section is 11742 words.)

Gisèle Venet (essay date 1995)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Venet, Gisèle. “Baroque Space and Time in Chapman's Tragedy: The Conspiracy and Tragedy of Byron.” In French Essays on Shakespeare and His Contemporaries: “What Would France with Us?,” edited by Jean-Marie Maguin and Michèle Willems, pp. 304-13. London: Associated University Presses, 1995.

[In the essay below, Venet considers Byron “the story of the great contradictions of the baroque era,” especially the opposition between medieval feudal values and Renaissance political values.]

The Conspiracie and Tragedie of Charles Duke of Byron, Marshall of France. Acted in two playes at the Black-Friers is a bipartite play, as the title...

(The entire section is 3786 words.)

Ennis Rees (essay date 1954)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Rees, Ennis. “The Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois.” In The Tragedies of George Chapman: Renaissance Ethics in Action, pp. 93-125. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1954.

[In the essay below, Rees contends that Chapman imbued the character of Clermont in The Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois with his own Christian humanist values, concluding that the playwright's ultimate objective was the moral instruction of his audience.]

In the chapters on Bussy and Byron we saw how Chapman employed cautionary examples to illustrate his doctrine of virtue. In the three tragedies that remain for our consideration—The Revenge, Caesar and...

(The entire section is 13693 words.)

Peter Bement (essay date spring 1972)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Bement, Peter. “The Stoicism of Chapman's Clermont D'Ambois.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 12, no. 2 (spring 1972): 345-57.

[In the following essay, Bement considers how Chapman manipulated the two principal divergent ideals of Stoicism—namely, action versus contemplation—in the character of Clermont to create a “heroic reformer” who performs “nobly and virtuously what is normally understood to be a violent and bloody action in the midst of a vicious world.”]

There is in all of George Chapman's work a high moral idealism coupled with an overwhelming sense of the world's hostility to true virtue. In poems like The Shadow of...

(The entire section is 4825 words.)

Patricia Demers (essay date 1976)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Demers, Patricia. “Chapman's The Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois: Fixity and the Absolute Man.” Renaissance and Reformation 12, no. 1 (1976): 12-20.

[In the essay below, Demers contends that Clermont in The Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois represents a Stoic absolutism in the midst of the corrupt and chaotic French court, elevating Chapman's play from a mere revenge tragedy to a kind of morality play.]

In all successes Fortune and the day
To me alike are; I am fix'd, be she
Never so fickle; …(1)

In a world where man is insignificant “unless he be a politician” (I. ii. 141), Clermont D'Ambois, the most reluctant and unlikely of...

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Suzanne F. Kistler (essay date spring 1980)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Kistler, Suzanne F. “‘Strange and Far-Removed Shores’: A Reconsideration of The Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois.Studies in Philology 77, no. 2 (spring 1980): 128-44.

[In the following essay, Kistler takes exception to the prevailing critical perception of Clermont as a Stoic avenger in The Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois. The critic maintains, instead, that the “revenger's deed represents not the triumph but the defeat of his ideals, just as his suicide betrays a mortally damaged spirit.”]

Few critics claim that Shakespeare was the inspiration for the character of Hamlet, and fewer still find Kyd mirrored in Hieronimo, or Marston in Antonio. We...

(The entire section is 6439 words.)

Richard S. Ide (essay date 1984)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Ide, Richard S. “Exploiting the Tradition: The Elizabethan Revenger as Chapman's ‘Complete Man.’” In Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England: An Annual Gathering of Research, Criticism, and Reviews 1, edited by J. Leeds Barroll III, pp. 159-72. New York: AMS Press, 1984.

[In the essay below, Ide argues that Chapman's purpose in writing The Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois was to renovate the conventional depiction of the Elizabethan revenge play with his own “neoplatonic esthetic” about how the genre should be represented.]

Criticism of Chapman's The Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois has recently completed a remarkable turnabout. Formerly,...

(The entire section is 6858 words.)

Further Reading

(Drama Criticism)


Bement, Peter. George Chapman: Action and Contemplation in His Tragedies. Jacobean Drama Studies 8, edited by James Hogg. Salzburg, Austria: Institut für Englishe Sprache und Literatur, 1974, 292 p.

Maintains that Chapman's intellectual approach to addressing the theme of action and contemplation in his tragedies transcends the typical pedantic doctrine on the subject from the English Renaissance period.

Crawley, Derek. Character in Relation to Action in the Tragedies of George Chapman. Jacobean Drama Studies, Vol. 16, edited by James Hogg. Salzburg, Austria: Institut für Englishe Sprache und Literatur, 1974, 202 p.


(The entire section is 586 words.)