George Chapman

George Chapman was born near Hitchin about 1559, and, according to Wood, "spent some time in Oxon, where he was observed to be most excellent in the Latin and Greek tongues, but not in logic or philosophy." He is first heard of upon publication of his poem The Shadow of Night in 1594. He is first mentioned as a dramatist in Henslowe's record of the performance of his Blind Beggar of Alexandria by the Admiral's Men in February, 1596. In 1598 Meres placed him among the best for both comedy and tragedy. Not long after 1600 he seems to have been writing for the Children of the Chapel--called after 1604 the Children of the Queen's Revels--at Blackfriars Theater. His share in Eastward Ho, written for the children in collaboration with Jonson and Marston, caused his imprisonment for a short while because James I was offended by its satire on the Scots. In Byron, also written for the boy actors, Chapman offended again by his representation of French royalty on the stage. His major activity as a dramatist probably ceased by 1613. In the meanwhile he had published in 1598 Seven Books of the Iliads and a continuation of Marlowe's Hero and Leander. Minor poetic works and parts of the famous Homeric translation were published at intervals, the complete edition of the two epics appearing in 1616 and a volume of other Homeric poems about 1624. From Prince Henry, his chief patron, whom he had served as sewer, he received promise of a large reward and a pension for his Homer, but after the death of the prince in 1612 the promise was not fulfilled. Chapman wrote a poem on his death and prepared a court masque the next year, but he did not continue in favor at court. His later life was one of poverty. He died in 1634, and was honored with a monument designed by his friend, the great architect Inigo Jones.

In Chapman's plays the Elizabethan poetic and romantic treatment of life is united with the humanist's interest in classical learning. Early in his career he experimented with elements of the comedy of humors, or manners, which Jonson, the dominant figure of the Stuart era, established in 1598 with his Every Man in His Humor, using a classical technique to satirize the follies of contemporary society. After depicting characters warped by humors in An Humorous Day's Mirth, apparently written for Henslowe in 1597, Chapman made a still more searching study of follies in All Fools of 1599, based on two plays by Terence. But in his comic plots, drawn from various sources including the classics, he seems to be interested primarily in devices of romantic comedy--love story, intrigue, disguise, mistakes of identity, and other features of the complicated action developed under the influence chiefly of Italian comedy and novel. His later comedies with date of publication are The Gentleman Usher (1606), Monsieur D'Olive (1606), May Day (1611), and The Widow's Tears (1612). Sir Giles Goosecap, printed in 1606, is usually ascribed to Chapman. In tragedy also Chapman showed a kinship to Jonson in his combination of history, philosophic discourse drawn from classic writers, and Senecan technique, but he did not achieve the clarity and sustained tone that made Jonson a model for later writers. Chapman is distinctly Elizabethan in his style, which frequently rises to passionate intensity, with passages lighted by felicitous figures as vivid and elaborate as his Homeric similes, but at times becomes bombastic, strained, or "metaphysical." One of his tragedies, Cæsar and Pompey, published in 1631 as written long before, deals with a theme of ancient history popular in drama. With the omission of some tragedies doubtfully ascribed to him, the rest are drawn from contemporary or recent French history: Bussy D'Ambois (printed in 1607), the two parts of The Conspiracy and the Tragedy of Charles, Duke of Byron (printed in 1608), The Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois (printed in 1613), and The Tragedy of Chabot (printed in 1639 as written by Chapman and Shirley). The main incidents of Byron and The Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois Chapman apparently drew from Grimestone's General Inventory of the History of France, a translation of Jean de Serres, brought nearer to the date of publication in 1607 by the use of other French works. He modified or supplemented his material, however, to emphasize certain aspects of character or to secure tragic effects. The influence of Seneca on his tragedies is clear in such devices as the ghost and in his fondness for the declamatory and sententious. Ethical or metaphysical discourses are adapted from classical treatises, as F.L. Schoell has shown, often through Renaissance translations or through compilations like Erasmus' Adagia. Plutarch's moral treatises furnished Chapman with numerous passages, and the stoic philosophy of Cleremont in The Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois is built up from passages in a Latin translation of Epictetus.

Bussy D'Ambois, Chapman's best tragedy, may have been written as early as 1598, to judge from the names of the characters in an inventory of garments to be found in Henslowe's Diary for that year. If so, it was revised before publication in 1607. Possibly the play was inspired by Marlowe's Massacre at Paris, for several of the same historical figures appear in the two, and there is a not dissimilar portrayal of bold, arrogant characters. As in other cases, Chapman must have had contemporary accounts for his historical details, but the extant French works of importance covering the field seem to have been printed after the play was written--De Thou's Historiæ sui temporis, formerly regarded as a possible source, the memoirs of Brantôme and Marguerite de Valois, and Rosset's Histoires traguques. Whatever his source, he has varied from historical fact, not only in a convention like the introduction of the ghost, but in giving a logical connection to the incidents chosen for plot, and in making Bussy a man of lower social status and more truculent nature than seems warranted. Bussy thus becomes an example of the aspiring spirits produced by the Renaissance, who dared much to win recognition, as other historical characters in the play have taken form as Renaissance types. After its publication by Aspley in 1607, Bussy D'Ambois was reissued in 1608. Robert Lunne brought out another edition in 1641, which according to the title-page had been "much corrected and amended by the Author before his death."

†This article was originally published in Elizabethan and Stuart Plays Ed. Charles Read Baskervill. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1934. pp. 723-24.

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