THE ELIZABETHAN drama, undoubtedly, followed a natural law of development. It culminated in tragedy in the first decade of the seventeenth century, because men and women reveal themselves most fully and finally in the furnace of affliction; and, therefore, the dramatist who desires to express the truth of human nature arrives, sooner or later, at tragedy as his most penetrating and powerful method. After the height has been reached a necessary rest and suspension of effort ensue, and of such a nature was the Jacobean and Caroline age of the drama. But a second cause was at work to increase this exhaustion and to hasten the decadence of an art that had lost its freshness. The tension of feeling as to things political and religious, which led, at last, to the civil war, was unfavourable to all artistic effort, but was especially hurtful to the drama. It took possession of the minds of all but the most frivolous. Theatre-goers ceased to be drawn from all ranks, as they were in Elizabeth’s days and began to form a special class composed of careless courtiers and the dregs of the town populace. Such a class required only lesser dramatists to supply its wants; and, as we approach the date of the closing of the theatres (1642), the greater lights go out one by one till only a crowd of little men are left, writing a drama which has neither form nor spirit remaining in it.
| The accident of the survival of Henslowe’s diary helped us to group together in some kind of natural order the more active of the lesser Elizabethan dramatists. We have no document of this sort to aid us in the case of the Jacobean and Caroline writers; but we are confronted by a remarkable personality whose relations with the dramatists and poets of his age were as honourable and unselfish as Henslowe’s were mercenary and mean. A young dramatist, writing to Henslowe for a loan, signs himself, in Elizabethan fashion, “your loving son.” It was a slight extension of this usage which made Jonson...
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