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.”
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.
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.
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.”