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A Collection of Old English Plays, Volume 1   By:

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In Four Volumes



1882 1889


The Tragedy of Nero The Mayde's Metamorphosis The Martyr'd Souldier The Noble Souldier


Most of the Plays in the present Collection have not been reprinted, and some have not been printed at all. In the second volume there will be published for the first time a fine tragedy (hitherto quite unknown) by Massinger and Fletcher, and a lively comedy (also quite unknown) by James Shirley. The recovery of these two pieces should be of considerable interest to all students of dramatic literature.

The Editor hopes to give in Vol. III. an unpublished play of Thomas Heywood. In the fourth volume there will be a reprint of the Arden of Feversham , from the excessively rare quarto of 1592.


Of the many irreparable losses sustained by classical literature few are more to be deplored than the loss of the closing chapters of Tacitus' Annals . Nero, it is true, is a far less complex character than Tiberius; and there can be no question that Tacitus' sketch of Nero is less elaborate than his study of the elder tyrant. Indeed, no historical figure stands out for all time with features of such hideous vividness as Tacitus' portrait of Tiberius; nowhere do we find emphasised with such terrible earnestness, the stoical poet's anathema against tyrants "Virtutem videant intabescantque relicta." Other writers would have turned back sickened from the task of following Tiberius through mazes of cruelty and craft. But Tacitus pursues his victim with the patience of a sleuth hound; he seems to find a ruthless satisfaction in stripping the soul of its coverings; he treads the floor of hell and watches with equanimity the writhings of the damned. The reader is at once strangely attracted and repelled by the pages of Tacitus; there is a weird fascination that holds him fast, as the glittering eye of the Ancient Mariner held the Wedding Guest. It was owing partly, no doubt, to the hideousness of the subject that the Elizabethan Dramatists shrank from seeking materials in the Annals ; but hardly the abominations of Nero or Tiberius could daunt such daring spirits as Webster or Ford. Rather we must impute their silence to the powerful mastery of Tacitus; it was awe that held them from treading in the historian's steps. Ben Jonson ventured on the enchanted ground; but not all the fine old poet's wealth of classical learning, not his observance of the dramatic proprieties nor his masculine intellect, could put life into the dead bones of Sejanus or conjure up the muffled sinister figure of Tiberius. Where Ben Jonson failed, the unknown author of the Tragedy of Nero has, to some extent, succeeded.

After reading the first few opening lines the reader feels at once that this forgotten old play is the work of no ordinary man. The brilliant scornful figure of Petronius, a character admirably sustained throughout, rivets his attention from the first. In the blank verse there is the true dramatic ring, and the style is "full and heightened." As we read on we have no cause for disappointment. The second scene which shows us the citizens hurrying to witness the triumphant entry of Nero, is vigorous and animated. Nero's boasting is pitched in just the right key; bombast and eloquence are equally mixt. If he had been living in our own day Nero might possibly have made an ephemeral name for himself among the writers of the Sub Swinburnian School. His longer poems were, no doubt, nerveless and insipid, deserving the scornful criticism of Tacitus and Persius; but the fragments preserved by Seneca shew that he had some skill in polishing far fetched conceits. Our playwright has not fallen into the error of making Nero "out Herod Herod"; through the crazy raptures we see the ruins of a nobler nature. Poppaea's arrowy sarcasms, her contemptuous impatience and adroit tact are admirable... Continue reading book >>

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