Jacobean Drama The Jacobean Worldview: An Era Of Transition - Essay

The Jacobean Worldview: An Era Of Transition

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Una Ellis-Fermor

SOURCE: "The Jacobean Drama," in The Jacobean Drama: An Interpretation, revised edition, Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1958, pp. 1-27.

[In the following chapter from her frequently cited critical study of Jacobean drama, originally published in 1936, Ellis-Fermor emphasizes the "sense of defeat" that characterized drama of the Jacobean period in contrast with the "vitality" of the Elizabethan era. She notes the increasingly unresolved treatment of evil and the sense of a decaying civilization that characterized the era and asserts that Jacobean drama anticipated a changing collective worldview in its separation of poetry, philosophy and science from the realm of religion.]

The mood of the drama from the early Elizabethan to the late Jacobean period appears to pass through three phases, each reflecting with some precision the characteristic thought, preoccupation or attitude to the problems of man's being of the period to which it belongs. That of the Elizabethan age proper, the drama of Greene, Kyd, Peele, Marlowe and the early work of Shakespeare, is characterized by its faith in vitality, its worship of the glorious processes of life, an expansion and elation of mind which corresponds directly to the upward movement of a prosperous and expanding society. This robust gusto appears directly in the comedies of Shakespeare and only less directly in Romeo and Juliet, instinct with the sense of the nobleness of life; it is there in the vigour of the Spanish Tragedy no less than in the tenderness of Greene or Peele's tremulous response to loveliness. But already within this age another movement sets in, paradoxically, it might seem, were it not that one age always overlaps another and thought is for ever anticipated in germ. Marlowe, the leader of the earlier age in tragic thought, already points it towards the sense of defeat that was so marked a characteristic of the Jacobeans. For all his strength, for all the desperate valour of his aspiration, the final position of each play in turn is an intimate defeat of aspiration itself. This runs through a protean series of forms, as might be supposed of an Elizabethan thinker, to culminate in the quiescence of Edward II. Marlowe's keen spiritual sense sees through the delusion of prosperity that intoxicates his contemporaries as a whole and anticipates that mood of spiritual despair which is its necessary result and becomes the centre of the later tragic mood. And this position is reached by Marlowe through one section of his experience which is, in its turn, an epitome of the experience that touched a large number of the Jacobean dramatists after him, his exploration of the system of Machiavelli.

The impact of this system came obliquely to the Elizabethans, through the preposterous stage figure of the pseudo-Machiavellian villain, which presented truly neither Machiavelli's individual precepts nor the balance of his thought as a whole. Yet, because of the perversions suffered by his thought in transmission, what was received by the Elizabethan drama brought with it not only the withering breath of matter-of-fact materialism proper to his method, but a more bitterly cynical individualism than he had ever implied. This, touching some of the playwrights immediately (while others it almost missed), spread gradually over the habit of tragic thought, reinforced by the tradition of Marlowe's study of spiritual defeat.

It was reinforced still more effectively after the turn of the century by the apprehensions and the disillusionment that spread through political and social life with the death of Elizabeth, the accession of James, the influence of his court and the instability of the first years of his reign. This mood, culminating as it did in and about the year 1605, took the form for public and private men alike of a sense of impending fate, of a state of affairs so unstable that great or sustained effort was suspended for a time and a sense of the futility of man's achievement set in. One immediate corollary of this is a preoccupation with death where the Elizabethan had been in love with life. Even when the actual threat was removed, those who survived found the great age gone and themselves the inheritors of poverty of spirit.

These things then were the heritage of the Jacobean drama on the threshold of its growth: spiritual uncertainty springing in part from the spreading of Machiavellian materialism emphasized by Marlowe's tragic thought and in still greater degree from the cause which has reproduced it to-day for us, fear of the impending destruction of a great civilization. The greatest plays of the years 1600-12 form a group reflecting this mood in one form or another: Troilus and Cressida, Hamlet, The Malcontent, All's Well that Ends Well, Measure for Measure, Volpone, Lear, Macbeth, Timon of Athens, The Revenger's Tragedy, The Tragedy of Byron, The Alchemist, The Atheist's Tragedy, The Chaste Maid in Cheapside, The White Devil. Through all these runs, besides the sense of spiritual emptiness or fear, a growing tendency to hold more closely to the evidence of the senses and of practical experience, to limit knowledge to a non-spiritual world of man and his relations with man. Comedy thus, with Marston, Ben Jonson, Middleton, Chapman, becomes increasingly immediate and concentrated upon the manners, habits and morals of man as a primarily social, non-poetic and non-spiritual animal. Tragi-comedy with Beaumont, Fletcher and Massinger escapes into romance. Most significant of all, tragedy, the form of drama responsible for interpreting to man the conditions of his own being, becomes satanic, revealing a world-order of evil power or, if it attempt excursions beyond man's immediate experience, bewildered and confused. This, passing through the work indicated above, finds its fullest expression in the unremitting satanism of Tourneur and, belatedly, in the scientific detachment of Middleton.

After the spiritual nadir of the middle years of the period a slow return to equilibrium sets in. The great age has gone, but so has the age of brooding, Senecan apprehension. 'O nos dura sorte creatos', that phrase which epitomizes (for the early Jacobeans, as for Seneca or for us) the inexplicable fate of a generation born for destruction, is no longer the instinctive expression of their perplexity. Satanism and a revived Senecanism go hand in hand for a time, but gradually they give place to a mood that is sometimes serenity, sometimes indifference, but, in either case, that of an age that has ceased to live in touch with catastrophe. The resolution is complete in Shakespeare's latest plays, it breaks through imperfectly in incidental touches in the Duchess of Malfi, more strongly in the later plays of the Middleton-Rowley group, and is supreme in Ford. 'Look you, the stars shine still.' They do, indeed; but the whole gamut of tragic experience lies between Greene or Peele at the beginning and Ford at the end of the period, like as their moods and cadences sometimes are, and the severity, the increasingly undramatic continence which is the most marked feature of Ford's development, shows that a phase is closing, that he is the last spokesman of a dramatic period that, from the first plays of the early Elizabethans to his latest work, had been one continuous sequence in three clearly defined movements. It is with the last two of these that this study is primarily concerned, but something must be said first of the earlier, from which the later originated.

The double life of the age, the outer life of event and action and the inner of reflection and thought, stored in the drama, finding a high imaginative interpretation in theme, in commentary and, perhaps most fruitfully, in incidental and revealing imagery, is markedly different in the first two phases of the period, the Elizabethan proper and the early Jacobean. The notable changes that came with the turn of the century and the last years of Elizabeth form, in poetry as in social and political life, a division between the world of the 'nineties now past and the age we call Jacobean, setting in before the actual accession of James. In drama especially, the second grew out of the first, was in fact so directly fathered by it that the relationship between them forms the most fitting introduction to the later growth.

In the earlier drama, the Elizabethan, the qualities most marked are clarity and exhilaration, the material chosen the tumultuous event of war and conquest or the romance of fairy tale, myth or love. It reflects, as great poetic drama must, rather the desires of its audience than their normal lives, gathering together the moments of heightened experience in which they have lived most swiftly rather than the normal alternating of rapid event and inertia. The imperishable instinct for horrors that chill the blood and raise the hair is satisfied simply, lustily, childishly (almost, in the case of Kyd, gaily), with a gusto as healthy as high winds in spring; The Spanish Tragedy, The Battle of Alcazar, Titus Andronicus, The Massacre at Paris, The Jew of Malta, even Arden of Feversham and The Yorkshire Tragedy, do not so much represent the average effect of Elizabethan daily life as reveal a hearty, credulous love of straightforward bloodshed, murder and mutilation uncontaminated by sophisticated skill of setting. Equally robust and rude is the new patriotism, the sudden realization of nationalism which runs a whole gamut,

from jingoism in Peele's Edward I through Gaunt and his compeers to the gravity of Henry V, the bright exhilaration of the last scene of the Arraignment of Paris or the chivalry of Greene. The average man's eager preoccupation with politics foreign and domestic finds its account in a whole world of historical plays, Shakespeare's, Greene's, Marlowe's, Peele's and a host of chronicles given over wholly or in part to the exploration of problems of government of the nature of king-ship, the king-becoming virtues, the evolution of the common Elizabethan's idea of a state. And beside this vivid mirroring of event are the plays of fantasy and romance, the delicate myths of Lyly, the diaphanous joy and humour of Peele's Arraignment and Old Wives' Tale, the straightforward tenderness of Greene's romantic scenes, their descendants in the early romantic plays of Shakespeare. Scattered throughout this drama are reflections of speculative thought carried out in the same mood of bold exploration, more amply revealed in the prose and metaphysical verse, but never with more depth of implication than in Tamburlaine and Faustus. All this, most noticeably, is not a literature of escape from, but a road to life; a way into reality by

imaginative experience strictly related to, though no mere reproduction of, the experience of every day. Above all it is a literature of radiant comedy and of tragedy (and it produced very little genuine tragedy outside Faustus and Romeo and Juliet) still breathless from its first contemplation of the magnitude of fate.

But already Marlowe's decisive genius had made a significant modification in the field of experience to be drawn on by the drama, had defined the underlying mood that was to be a main factor in the development of English tragedy and in so doing had delimited indirectly the mood and field of its comedy. The full effect of his emphatic decision does not show itself immediately and might indeed never have done so had not much else in the fortunes and experience of the Jacobean age been propitious, but, coming when he does, the first explorer of tragic thought in English drama, he imposes something of his interpretation, contributes at least to the force and direction of its progress. For in Marlowe we find, earlier than in any of his contemporaries, the significant schism between the ideal or spiritual world and the world pragmatically estimated by everyday observation, which seems, in one form or another, to be an essential part of any tragic conception of the universe. The cleavage is anticipated in Tamburlaine and presented in its full operation in Faustus, where the possibility of reconciling the course of man's life with the aspiration of his spiritual instincts is rejected. 'Belike we must sin and so consequently die. Aye, we must die an everlasting death.' The separation between the two worlds is complete and the total of man's experience for him is thereafter no true universe but a battleground, a dual presentation of mutually contradictory experiences. Rejecting, then, the medieval Church's conclusion upon this conflict, Marlowe, a true pragmatic Elizabethan in this, accepts the immediate and actual world as real and arrives, through the series of historical plays, at some kind of synthetic interpretation of the half he has chosen to retain. But the invisible world he has rejected troubles him, though the Church's anathemas do not, and nearly to the end a note of defiance betrays his insecurity: 'Of this am I assured, that death ends all.' He is not assured, and, what is more important, he transmits to the succeeding dramatic tradition a limited interpretation, a deliberately truncated universe, a world that is self-contained in its actualism, seeking its synthesis and its elucidation within its own bounds, rejecting that wider universe of the soul of which the writers outside the drama still for a while remain free.

Marlowe in this is less an innovator than a thinker coming at the climax of a movement, defining what has long been implicit and, in so defining, giving to it a fresh direction, a modified or intensified significance. The beginnings of this movement may be traced in the separation of drama from the medieval Church and the slow process of secularization has occupied some three hundred years. But because of this act of separation, in spite of the retention of doctrinal and traditional themes, the drama seems to have grown beneath the surface during that interval into the least ecclesiastical—if not an anti-ecclesiastical—art. It was at the hands of Marlowe that the Church finally lost the drama but his attitude of religious atheism would not have been enough alone to separate the world of the drama from the complete universe still contemplated by many of his contemporaries if it had not been for the part played by Church and drama in their mutual misinterpretations of each other and of that universal whole.

For, partly through the accident of Marlowe's leadership, but partly also through conscious or unconscious anti-ecclesiasticism, the dramatists arrive earlier than the body of their contemporaries at a uniform rejection of the element of religion which habitually plays so large a part in the evolution of drama and so small a part in its full development. For outside the drama we can still meet in Marlowe's contemporaries of the late sixteenth century either a simple piety or a philosophic interpretation capable of beholding the apparent conflict as two aspects of a single world, capable of dwelling in this single world, this true universe where the seen is only an image of the unseen, of passing easily and without anxiety from contemplation of one aspect to that of the other. Whether in Sidney's sonnets, in Nashe's verses on the plague, in the description of the death of Sir Humphrey Gilbert, in Hooker's survey of the nature of Law, in Bacon's pseudo-Aristotelian interpretation of First and Second Causes, there is, in all these, no doubt as to the relations of the spiritual world and the world of observed fact, nor as to the validity of man's judgment in supposing the seen to be the image and instrument of the unseen.

This still characteristic attitude, this unrestricted citizenship in two worlds simultaneously, this power of transfusing the world of affairs suddenly with irradiation from a spiritual universe at once circumambient and interpenetrating, this rhythm of which Marlowe's hard, clear thought had helped to denude the drama, is never better seen than in the man who seems himself an epitome of his age, Sir Walter Ralegh. In him is laid bare more clearly than perhaps in any other one man the process by which the best of both these worlds is achieved. In his letters and the records of his life we find an explorer associated with every major expedition of the last fifteen years of Elizabeth's reign, a leader of great practical acumen and an almost matchless power of controlling men, a soldier of some distinction and an able captain; a courtier and adventurer who had made his way by studying the whims of the Queen and made himself hated by forcing others in turn to study his; a statesman who achieved eminence, in Ireland if not in England; an historian and chronicler second to none in his age; a scientist among the first and no mean mathematician; a bold, adventurous man whose instinct for intrigue was only checked by his impatience of the processes of intriguing; a worldling—but such a one as reminds us there are worse things than a good worldling. And out of this medley of intrigue and adventure, extravagance and violence, comes a voice of grave assurance:

Blood must be my bodies balmer,
No other balme will there be given
Whilst my soule like a white Palmer
Travels to the land of heaven.

Nor is this a paradox. Ralegh, bred up as so many of his generation to 'hold the world but as the world', pursued it whole-heartedly in the half-conscious assurance that the other was at hand the moment he chose to withdraw into it. It was indeed about them on every side, and though they did not necessarily mingle the two, they did not forget which claimed precedence. Indeed, the mind of Ralegh (and of not a few contemporaries of like habit) has a double motion like the planets of Faustus's system, and while the daily revolution is concerned only with worldly business, the primum mobile is ever exerting, unseen, the quiet and irresistible pressure of its heavenly sway.

Such things as these are not the momentary indications of a passing mood, but rather the decantation of his thought, clear, simple and quintessential, so closely related to the sum of precedent experience as to be alone capable of completing and containing it. This apparent paradox—in truth the simplest of conditions—is the characteristic approach to life of Ralegh and of many of his contemporaries.

It is, then, this unity, whether in terms of Bacon's immense lucidity or Hooker's, or of Ralegh's snipe-like flight, threading from world to world, it is this acceptance of both the outer and the inner world, the seen and the unseen, the evidence of observed fact and the intuition of a spiritual universe, which Marlowe rejects and the drama after him is for a time powerless to recover, though here and there an individual such as Dekker makes a faint attempt. The denial of dogmatic theology gives a momentary freedom to the range of thought, a sudden and immense increase of stature and dignity to the figure of man who thus becomes the significant deity, at once priest and victim, of his own universe. For a time with Marlowe himself the stirring of this freedom, like a dark wind of thought, moves him to an exultation higher than the contemplations of his contemporaries whether in poetry or in drama. But even in him the mood dies down and the gigantic figure of Faustus, archtype of man's defiance in defeat, shrinks in Mortimer 'to a little point, A kind of nothing'.

The sinking of the clear exaltation of Elizabethan dramatic poetry into the sophisticated, satirical, conflicting mood, deeply divided, of the Jacobean drama has many concurrent causes other than Marlowe's rejection, after Faustus, of that 'wonder which is broken knowledge'. There were far-reaching political and social changes consequent upon the death of Elizabeth and the changing of the dynasty and these were felt by anticipation some years before that death actually happened. The apprehension, regret and disillusionment inevitable to the conscious passing of a long period of high civilization were not in this case unfounded, and those who had known the great age, even those who had only grown to manhood during its latest years, were touched by them, often (like the generation that succeeded the Great War) without being able to define their loss in what had passed. Moreover, the literature, and especially the drama, had reached a stage of its development in which some transition from wonder and discovery to assessment and criticism was inevitable; this would have happened had Elizabeth been immortal. As it was, the phase, within the drama itself, of testing and questioning the findings and methods of the earlier age coincided with a period of disillusionment and apprehension in the world from which that drama drew its themes and this, combined with the still living tradition of Marlowe's thought, set up a mood which resembles on one side that of English poetry in the second and third decades of the twentieth century and on another that of Seneca and his public in the first.

This was especially emphasized in the dramatic tradition by a factor which, though partly accidental, is of overwhelming importance, the impact upon the poetic universe of the Elizabethans of the thought of Machiavelli. Nothing could have been more alien to Elizabethan dramatic poetry, as it appears in the early work of Marlowe, Peele, Greene and Shakespeare, than Machiavelli's cold, scientific appraisal of the poverty of man's spirit. Although, in their utter inability to grasp the essentials of his system, they at first twisted his thought into some likeness to their own healthy love of melodramatic villainy, enough of his clear, withering honesty survives the perversion to drive the drama with irresistible force towards the acceptance of a materialist universe. For (and it is there that one accidental element occurs) through Gentillet's perversion of the system in the Contre-Machiavel, a figure so suitable for drama was evolved from Machiavelli's essentially undramatic philosophy that the Machiavellian villain became one of the most popular stage figures for twenty years and nearly every tragic dramatist from Marlowe to Webster adds his share. Again it is Marlowe who is responsible for the acclimatizing of Machiavellianism in England, and so again it is in Marlowe's own career that the trend of the later drama is anticipated. While the Machiavellian villain appealed to Kyd and to many of his public only as a theatrical figure apt for promiscuous villainy (which would have had relatively little lasting effect), Marlowe was concerned with the real system that lay behind this farrago of preposterous melodrama, came to a limited understanding of Machiavelli himself and so transmitted to his successors the results of his exploration of a materialist and approximately satanic interpretation of life. His own discovery of Machiavelli came hard upon the heels of the negative conclusions of Faustus and confirmed in him the rejection of the spiritual universe by offering him a systematic, logical, self-contained and severe interpretation of the world of facts which might else have been left disparate and inconclusive. The ardour of Marlowe's early Machiavellianism in the Jew of Malta and the Massacre at Paris is only matched by the pressure it exerted upon the subsequent tradition.

For Machiavelli, although easily misrepresented, was no mean force. One of the greatest, in some ways the most independent of assessors of human values, deeply civilized, trained to the highest point of sagacity and scientific precision, honest as few men are honest, Machiavelli offered to the mind that could grasp him with any completeness a compact, unshakeable interpretation of civilization based frankly upon the assumption of weakness, ingratitude and ill-will as essential elements of human character and society, upon the acceptance of religion only as the means of making a people docile to their governors, upon the open admission of cruelty, parsimony and betrayal of faith as necessary (if...

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