Lecture III: On Marston, Chapman, Deckar, Webster

Critic: William Hazlitt
Source: The Complete Works of William Hazlitt, Vol. 6, edited by P. P. Howe, J. M. Dent and Sons, Ltd., 1931, pp. 223-48

[An English essayist, Hazlitt was one of the most important critics of the Romantic age. He contributed significantly to a revival of interest in a number of Elizabethan dramatists, including John Webster and Thomas Heywood. Hazlitt's ideal of criticism was to provide a guide to the work under consideration rather than an ultimate judgment of that work. Moreover, as a journalist writing for the general public, Hazlitt purposely made his criticism palatable to readers by using illustrations, digressions, and repetitions. In this excerpt from a lecture originally published in his Lectures chiefly on the Dramatic Literature of the Age of Elizabeth (1820), he praises Dekker's characterizations in The Honest Whore.]

[Old] honest Deckar's Signior Orlando Friscobaldo I shall never forget! I became only of late acquainted with this ... worthy character; but the bargain between us is, I trust, for life. We sometimes regret that we had not sooner met with characters like these, that seem to raise, revive, and give a new zest to our being. Vain the complaint! We should never have known their value, if we had not known them always: they are old, very old acquaintance, or we should not recognise them at first sight. We only find in books what is already written within `the red-leaved tables of our hearts.' The pregnant materials are there; `the pangs, the internal pangs are ready; and poor humanity's afflicted will struggling in vain with ruthless destiny.' But the reading of fine poetry may indeed open the bleeding wounds, or pour balm and consolation into them, or sometimes even close them up for ever! Let any one who has never known cruel disappointment, nor comfortable hopes, read the first scene between Orlando and Hippolito, in Deckar's play of the Honest Whore, and he will see nothing in it. (p. 235)

The execution is, throughout, as exact as the conception is new and masterly. There is the least colour possible used; the pencil drags; the canvas is almost seen through: but then, what precision of outline, what truth and purity of tone, what firmness of hand, what marking of character! The words and answers all along are so true and pertinent, that we seem to see the gestures, and to hear the tone with which they are accompanied. So when Orlando, disguised, says to his daughter, `You'll forgive me,' and she replies, `I am not marble, I forgive you;' or again, when she introduces him to her husband, saying simply, `It is my father,' there needs no stage-direction to supply the relenting tones of voice or cordial frankness of manner with which these words are spoken. It is as if there were some fine art to chisel thought, and to embody the inmost movements of the mind in every-day actions and familiar speech. It has been asked,

Oh! who can paint a sun-beam to the blind,

Or make him feel a shadow with his mind?

But this difficulty is here in a manner overcome. Simplicity and extravagance of style, homeliness and quaintness, tragedy and comedy, interchangeably set their hands and seals to this admirable production. We find the simplicity of prose with the graces of poetry. The stalk grows out of the ground; but the flowers spread their flaunting leaves in the air. The mixture of levity in the chief character bespeaks the bitterness from which it seeks relief; it is the idle echo of fixed despair, jealous of observation or pity. The sarcasm quivers on the lip, while the tear stands congealed on the eye-lid. This `tough senior,' this impracticable old gentleman softens into a little child; this choke-pear melts in the mouth like marmalade. In spite of his resolute professions of misanthropy, he watches over his daughter with kindly solicitude; plays the careful housewife; broods over her lifeless hopes; nurses the decay of her husband's fortune, as he had supported her tottering infancy; saves the high-flying Matheo from the gallows more than once, and is twice a father to them. The story has all the romance of private life, all the pathos of bearing up against silent grief, all the tenderness of concealed affection:--there is much sorrow patiently borne, and then comes peace. Bellafront, in the two parts of this play taken together, is a most interesting character. It is an extreme, and I am afraid almost an ideal case. She gives the play its title, turns out a true penitent, that is, a practical one, and is the model of an exemplary wife. She seems intended to establish the converse of the position, that a reformed rake makes the best husband, the only difficulty in proving which, is, I suppose, to meet with the character. The change of her relative position, with regard to Hippolito, who, in the first part, in the sanguine enthusiasm of youthful generosity, has reclaimed her from vice, and in the second part, his own faith and love of virtue having been impaired with the progress of years, tries in vain to lure her back again to her former follies, has an effect the most striking and beautiful. The pleadings on both sides, for and against female faith and constancy, are managed with great polemical skill, assisted by the grace and vividness of poetical illustration. As an instance of the manner in which Bellafront speaks of the miseries of her former situation, `and she has felt them knowingly,' I might give the lines in which she contrasts the different regard shewn to the modest or the abandoned of her sex.

I cannot, seeing she's woven of such bad stuff,

Set colours on a harlot bad enough.

Nothing did make me when I lov'd them best,

To loath them more than this: when in the street

A fair, young, modest damsel, I did meet;

She seem'd to all a dove, when I pass'd by,

And I to all a raven: every eye

That followed her, went with a bashful glance;

At me each bold and jeering countenance

Darted forth scorn: to her, as if she had been

Some tower unvanquished, would they all vail;

'Gainst me swoln rumour hoisted every sail.

She crown'd with reverend praises, pass'd by them;

I, though with face mask'd, could not 'scape the hem;

For, as if heav'n had set strange marks on whores,

Because they should be pointing-stocks to man,

Drest up in civilest shape, a courtesan,

Let her walk saint-like, noteless, and unknown,

Yet she's betray'd by some trick of her own.

Perhaps this sort of appeal to matter of fact and popular opinion, is more convincing than the scholastic subtleties of the Lady in Comus. The manner too, in which Infelice, the wife of Hippolito, is made acquainted with her husband's infidelity, is finely dramatic; and in the scene where she convicts him of his injustice by taxing herself with incontinence first, and then turning his most galling reproaches to her into upbraidings against his own conduct, she acquits herself with infinite spirit and address. The contrivance, by which, in the first part, after being supposed dead, she is restored to life, and married to Hippolito, though perhaps a little far-fetched, is affecting and romantic. There is uncommon beauty in the Duke her father's description of her sudden illness. In reply to Infelice's declaration on reviving, `I'm well,' he says,

Thou wert not so e'en now. Sickness' pale hand

Laid hold on thee, ev'n in the deadst of feasting:

And when a cup, crown'd with thy lover's health,

Had touch'd thy lips, a sensible cold dew

Stood on thy cheeks, as if that death had wept

To see such beauty altered.

Candido, the good-natured man of this play, is a character of inconceivable quaintness and simplicity. His patience and good-humour cannot be disturbed by any thing. The idea (for it is nothing but an idea) is a droll one, and is well supported. He is not only resigned to injuries, but `turns them,' as Falstaff says of diseases, `into commodities.' He is a patient Grizzel out of petticoats, or a Petruchio reversed. He is as determined upon winking at affronts, and keeping out of scrapes at all events, as the hero of the Taming of a Shrew is bent upon picking quarrels out of straws, and signalizing his manhood without the smallest provocation to do so. The sudden turn of the character of Candido, on his second marriage, is, however, as amusing as it is unexpected.

Matheo, `the high-flying' husband of Bellafront, is a masterly portrait, done with equal ease and effect. He is a person almost without virtue or vice, that is, he is in strictness without any moral principle at all. He has no malice against others, and no concern for himself. He is gay, profligate, and unfeeling, governed entirely by the impulse of the moment, and utterly reckless of consequences. His exclamation, when he gets a new suit of velvet, or a lucky run on the dice, `do we not fly high,' is an answer to all arguments. Punishment or advice has no more effect upon him, than upon the moth that flies into the candle. He is only to be left to his fate. Orlando saves him from it, as we do the moth, by snatching it out of the flame, throwing it out of the window, and shutting down the casement upon it! (pp. 237-40)

Source: William Hazlitt, "Lecture III: On Marston, Chapman, Deckar, Webster," in his The Complete Works of William Hazlitt, Vol. 6, edited by P. P. Howe, J. M. Dent and Sons, Ltd., 1931, pp. 223-48.