Introduction to George Chapman

George Chapman had the distinction of having lived as an adult to witness the full flowering and blooming of Elizabethan stage drama. He was 27 years old when Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great was first performed in 1586, subsequently living through the entire era of Shakespeare, Beaumont and Fletcher, Massinger and Ford.

Chapman was born in 1559 in a small town about 30 miles north of London. He was thoroughly educated in the classics at Oxford, becoming proficient in both Greek and Latin, but his whereabouts for the 20 years after he left the university remain unknown. He may have seen military service in the Netherlands. It is known that at least from the mid-1590s he lived in London, during which time he became a professional writer for the stage. This would have made Chapman about 40 years old when he wrote his first comedies.  Most of Chapman’s known and extant plays were written over the next decade. It may be noted that Chapman, along with collaborators John Marston and Ben Jonson, spent brief sessions in prison for two of their plays that offended the government.

His dramatic output seems to have suddenly ceased around 1613, with only one or so more plays added to his work after that, before he finally died at the grand old age of 75 on May 12, 1634. He was buried in the churchyard of St. Giles-in-the-Field in London, where his grave may still be seen, complete with a stone monument designed by the 17th century architect Indigo Jones. He had written about 7 comedies and 7 dramas for the English stage in his lifetime.

It should be noted at this point that George Chapman is, and should be, remembered more for his famous translations of Homer’s works, including the Iliad and Odyssey, than for his dramatic works. These epic poems have indeed earned the right to be considered among the greatest of all Elizabethan literature.

In light of his success as a poet, it should not be surprising then to learn that his greatest strength as a writer was that which Chapman editor William Lyon Phelps referred to as philosophical reflection, or declamation. His dramas in particular are filled with such rich “treasures of thought”1, and passages of “singular weight and beauty”.2 It is in these frequent digressions of philosophical poetry where Chapman’s skills as a dramatist truly shine.

Chapman’s dramatic style, unfortunately, has drawn universal criticism over the centuries primarily for his frequent descents into wordy obscurity, his dramas especially being filled with rhetorical flourishes that have always been just plain impossible to understand: one critic complained of the numerous lines written by Chapman “to which the mind in vain torments itself to attach any meaning.” The Encyclopedia Britannica (1911) describes these kinds of passages as “thick and slab as a witch’s gruel”.

Characterization, or rather the lack of it, has also been a source of complaint; most of the men and women who populate his plays never develop truly interesting and distinct personalities, the result being that the speeches of one character could just as easily fit into the mouths of any other.

Chapman had a fine wit, and healthy ability for “humorous invention.”2 I have selected what I believe to be Chapman’s two most enjoyable comedies, The Gentleman Usher and The Widow’s Tears, to include on this site.

Chapman’s early plays are mostly in verse, but his later efforts swing back forth between extended scenes of prose and those mixing both verse and prose.  His verse, however, is written in easy-to-follow iambic pentameter; just mouth or read aloud his poetry, and the iambs will roll smoothly off your tongue. Careless as he tended to be with details, though, he frequently used lines of less than five feet.

1 Phelps, William L. George Chapman. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1895 2 Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911.