Roman Plays in the Sixteenth Century
Plays that dealt with the History of Rome were frequent on the Elizabethan stage, and all portions of it were laid under contribution. Subjects were taken from legends of the dawn like the story of Lucretia, and from rumours of the dusk like the story of Lucina; from Roman pictures of barbarian allies like Massinissa in the South, or barbarian antagonists like Caractacus in the North; as well as from the intimate records of home affairs and the careers of the great magnates of the Republic or Empire. But these plays belong more distinctively to the Stuart than to the Tudor section of the period loosely named after Elizabeth, and few have survived that were composed before the beginning of the seventeenth century. For long the Historical Drama treated by preference the traditions and annals of the island realm, and only by degrees did “the matter of Britain” yield its pride of place to “the matter of Rome the Grand.” Moreover, the earlier Roman Histories are of very inferior importance, and none of them reaches even a moderate standard of merit till the production of Shakespeare's
in 1600 or 1601. In this department Shakespeare had not the light to guide him that [p. 2]
he found for his English Histories in Marlowe's
., or even in such plays as The Famous Victories of Henry V
. The extant pieces that precede his first experiment, seem only to be groping their way, and it is fair to suppose that the others which have been lost did no better. Their interest, in so far as they have any interest at all, lies in the light they throw on the gradual progress of dramatic art in this domain. And they illustrate it pretty fully, and show it passing through some of the main general phases that may be traced in the evolution of the Elizabethan Tragedy as a whole. At the outset we have one specimen of the Roman play in which the legitimate drama is just beginning to disengage itself from the old Morality, and another in which the unique Senecan exemplar is transformed rather than translated to suit the primitive art of the time. Then we have several more artistic specimens deriving directly or indirectly from the French imitators of Seneca, which were the most dignified and intelligent the sixteenth century had to show. And lastly we have a specimen of what the Roman play became when elaborated by the scholar-playwrights for the requirements of the popular London stage.
A survey of these will show how far the ground was prepared for Shakespeare by the traditions of this branch of the drama when he turned to cultivate it himself.