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Chapman, George (1559–1631) - BIOGRAPHY, CRITICAL RECEPTION

chapman’s kermode’s reading death

We know little about George Chapman’s early life. He seems to have sought a loan to buy clothes to attend upon Sir Ralph Sadler in 1585, and he may have spent time fighting in the Netherlands around 1591, but not until the beginning of 1594, at what seems for a serious writer the comparatively late age of thirty-four, did he appear on the literary scene. Yet within four years he was being mentioned as an important dramatist by the always enthusiastic Francis Meres and as a significant literary figure by Gabriel Harvey.* In the last seven years of Elizabeth’s reign and the decade after James’s ascension Chapman produced a cluster of much-praised comedies and some successful tragedies, most of which were based on recent or contemporary French history. In 1598 he also began to publish in parts a verse translation of Homer, which was encouraged and supported by Henry, the Prince of Wales, after Queen Elizabeth’s death. The prince’s own early death left Chapman without a patron, but he remained in favor at court. In the second decade of the century he was entrusted with one of the central masques for the 1611 marriage of Princess Elizabeth, and to honor the scandalous marriage in 1613 of the earl of Somerset, one of King James’* favorites, and the notorious Lady Frances, he wrote an ambitious epithalamion, Andromeda Liberata , for which he quickly had to issue an apologetic defense. Chapman himself never married, though he is the putative author of some letters wooing a wealthy widow that appear in a collection of letters now owned by the Folger Library. At various times in his life he was harassed by creditors, some of them notorious cheats, and he spent time in prison for debt and for offending the king. If his career was always a struggle, nevertheless he seems to have been friends with important dramatists, poets, and intellectuals. In the later 1590s he was associated with Thomas Harriot, the scientist and mathematician patronized by Ralegh,* and in the first part of the seventeenth century he was much involved with Ben Jonson.* In the 1620s Michael Drayton wrote of him admiringly, and in 1642 Henry Reynolds invoked him posthumously in a belated attempt to defend the reading of classical verse for its hidden mysteries.


In his lifetime Chapman was respected, admired, even envied (he is a plausible candidate for Shakespeare’s rival poet), but his reputation has not fared well. Immediately after his death publishers sometimes advertised undistinguished plays by attributing them to him ( Alfonsus, Emperor of Germany , and Revenge for Honour ), but by the Restoration Dryden found Bussy bombastic nonsense. Though he was always recognized as of historical importance, and though the Homer always has had admirers, Chapman came to represent the archaic and awkward aspects of the Renaissance golden age. Arnold quoted his prose as an example of the barbarism that Dryden would reform, and Swinburne, in his important essay prefacing the first complete edition in 1874, found his difficulty a sign of confusion, in contrast to Browning’s powerful intellectuality. The later enthusiasm of T. S. Eliot and of Havelock Ellis (who published a book of selections of Chapman in 1934) has not been generally shared by the more academic critics of the last half-century. In 1926 F. L. Schoell showed that Chapman often translated Continental humanists (such as Ficino, Politiano, and Erasmus*) into verse without acknowledging his debt. In the late 1930s Chapman began to be read as a scholarly and pedantic moralist.

Interest in Chapman’s poetry and in the whole issue of his moral stance was brilliantly stimulated by Frank Kermode’s essay of 1957, arguing that “Ovid’s Banquet of Sence” is not a description of rapturous insight, as had generally been assumed, but a cautionary poem warning about the dangers of an “Ovidian” philosophy of the senses. Though a number of critics defended Kermode’s reading, the issue is by no means settled. Kermode’s reading was received with skepticism by Millar MacLure and Raymond Waddington, who emphasized Chapman’s learning over his moralism. Recently, Gerald Snare has argued that Chapman’s aims should be understood in aesthetic rather than moral or philosophical terms.

At about the same time Kermode was challenging the traditional reading of the early poetry, Ennis Rees was overturning the traditional interpretation of Bussy D’Ambois by arguing that the play, which had generally been read as an awkward heroic tragedy, was in fact holding Bussy up as an example of a misguided and sensuous man. Unlike Kermode’s, Rees’ revisionary interpretation has not found support, but the fact that such an inversion could be proposed suggests the difficulty of interpreting the play. In the work of Richard Ide, A. R. Braunmuller, and others the play has been read as a study of heroic behavior in an ambiguous and complex social and political world not unlike Chapman’s own. If fifty years ago the critical tendency was to turn Chapman into a lonely and stern moralist, more recent critics have tended to see him as a lively intellectual poet engaged in putting together a career. Chapman may have painted himself as a man of learned and removed integrity, somewhat like his friend Ben Jonson, but criticism is now more aware of how, like his friend, he was also competing vigorously in a number of very realistic and practical markets: seeking support from traditional aristocratic patrons, selling scripts to theatrical producers, and even, in the monumental project of the Homer , hoping to profit in the comparatively new commerce in printed books.

Chapman, Sydney [next] [back] Chaplin, Charlie (1889-1977)

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