BORN: c. 1559, Hitchin, Hertfordshire, England
DIED: 1634, London
GENRE: Poetry, drama, nonfiction
The Blind Beggar of Alexandria (1596)
All Fools (1605)
Eastward Ho (1605)
Bussy D’Ambois (1607)
George Chapman. Chapman, George, photograph.
Dramatist, poet, and distinguished translator, George Chapman embodied the Renaissance ideal of the sophisticated man of letters capable of writing competently in a wide range of genres. He was as much at ease writing dramatic poetry as he was writing farcical comedies or philosophical tragedies. Chapman’s dramas achieved moderate success in his lifetime, though they are now rarely performed. Many critics consider his translations of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey his most important achievement.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Early Years and Military Service. Chapman’s life is not well documented. He was born at Hitchin in Hertfordshire, England, around the year 1559, the second son of Thomas Chapman and Joan Nodes, the daughter of a royal huntsman at the court of Henry VIII. Very little is known about Chapman’s early education, though it is presumed he attended the grammar school at Hitchin. He attended Oxford beginning in 1574, where he is said to have excelled in Greek and Latin. Following his time at Oxford, Chapman entered into the service of a prominent nobleman, Sir Ralph Sadler, from 1583 to 1585. He subsequently served with the military expedition of Sir Francis Vere in the United Provinces, which were then engaged in the Eighty Years War.
‘‘School of Night’’. Chapman returned to England in 1594, established residence in London, and published his first work, The Shadow of Night: Containing Two Poeticall Hymnes. Around this time, Chapman entered Sir Walter Raleigh’s circle, a literary group devoted to scientific and philosophical speculation that occasionally dabbled in the occult. Termed ‘‘The School of Night’’ by William Shakespeare for their esoteric ideas, the circle’s influence, especially its metaphysical orientation, is evident in Chapman’s writings of the 1590s, including both the poetry collection Ovid’s Banquet of Sence and his completion of Christopher Marlowe’s Hero and Leander.
Professional Success, Financial Hardship. Toward the end of the 1590s, Chapman debuted as a dramatist with a pair of comedies, The Blind Beggar of Alexandria and A Humorous Day’s Mirth, written for the Lord Admiral’s Men, a major theatrical company in London. Other comedies followed, written for similar private theatrical companies. By the close of the Elizabethan period, Chapman was widely recognized as a leading dramatist and poet, yet the meager income from the production of his plays forced him to live in poverty. Increasingly strained circumstances led to desperate solutions: In 1599, Chapman relinquished his claim to the family estate for a small cash settlement. The following year, Chapman was imprisoned for debt, the unwitting victim of a fraudulent moneylender.
Return to Prison. With the accession of James I in 1603, Chapman’s fortune suddenly changed when he was given a position in the household of Prince Henry. At the time, many artists survived by securing funding from a wealthy patron, a sponsor of their work who usually received dedications in the creator’s work as well as increased social standing for helping to bring great art into being. With Prince Henry as his patron, Chapman continued composing dramas, including his last major comedy, Eastward Ho, written in collaboration with Ben Jonson and John Marston. The play’s sarcastic political insults against policies favored by James I resulted in swift imprisonment for Chapman and Jonson, though both were soon released. Afterward, Chapman turned to writing tragedy. His best-known works from this period are Bussy D’Ambois and the two-part The Conspiracy and Tragedy of Charles, Duke of Byron.
Without a Patron. Chapman’s career is also notable for his ambitious plan to translate into modern English the classical Greek works of Homer. His translation of the first twelve books of the Iliad appeared in 1609, prefaced by a dedication to Prince Henry, who had endorsed the work with a promise of three hundred pounds and a pension. However, when the young prince died suddenly in 1612, the prince’s father failed to fulfill Henry’s promise to Chapman. A similar fate befell Chapman’s hope in Robert Carr, later Earl of Somerset, whose career at court was effectively terminated due to a series of marital scandals. In effect, Chapman remained without a patron for his entire literary career, the financial and professional consequences of which were disastrous. He completed a translation of Homer’s poetry and a pair of classical tragedies around 1615 that were never performed during his lifetime. By 1624, Chapman’s last years were spent in relative obscurity. Nonetheless, when he died on May 12, 1634, Chapman was honored by the elite, including the fashionable architect Inigo Jones, who constructed his funeral monument.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Chapman's famous contemporaries include:
Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616): Spanish author of Don Quixote, often cited as the first novel ever written.
Ben Jonson (1572-1637): English dramatist and poet, Jonson is best known for his play The Alchemist.
Ishida Mitsunari (1560-1600): This famous samurai led the Western Army during the Battle of Sekigahara.
Galileo Galilei (1564-1642): Galilei was an Italian astronomer who championed Copernicus's heliocentric theory—the belief that the planets of the solar system revolve around the sun—despite its unpopularity at the time.
Michel de Montaigne (1533-92): This French author pioneered the essay as an art form.
Sacharias Jansen (c. 1585-c. 1632): Jansen was a Dutch spectacle-maker who was one of two people likely to have invented the telescope.
Works in Literary Context
Chapman’s approach to literature was similar to that of his famous contemporary, Ben Jonson. Like Jonson, Chapman was strongly influenced by the artistic theories of Italian Renaissance writers, who held that the works of classical antiquity defined true artistic principles. However, while Jonson was specifically concerned with matters of literary style, Chapman was more interested in theoretical and philosophical problems. The Neoplatonic theories of Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola, which said that artistic endeavors should aim to represent an ideal realm of truth, formed the basis of Chapman’s poetics. The Stoic philosophy enunciated in the works of Seneca and Epictetus also influenced Chapman, particularly with regard to his tragic vision.
Ovid’s Influence. Like most writers of the English Renaissance, Chapman recognized narrative poetry as an important genre of classical literature and imitated such Latin poets as Ovid. His first poem, The Shadow of Night., consists of two books addressed to the figure of Night and the pagan goddess of the Moon, Cynthia. The Shadow of Night is written in the form of a complex allegory, exploring different levels of meaning—philosophical, political, and poetic—in an attempt to rationalize man’s condition on earth. Perhaps Chapman’s most highly regarded poem, Ovid’s Banquet of Sence depicts Ovid’s encounter with Julia, the daughter of the Roman emperor Augustus, who inspires him to write The Art of Love.
Chapman’s next major work, his completion of Christopher Marlowe’s first two books of Hero and Leander, is viewed by most critics as an austere corrective to Marlowe’s sensual imagery. In the final lines of Hero and Leander, Chapman writes again from an allegorical perspective about the meaning of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Nonetheless, some critics link Chapman’s poetic canon to seventeenth-century Metaphysical poetry because of his use of dense imagery to illuminate philosophical questions. Others maintain that his narrative poems were intended as ironic commentary on the philosophical dilemmas posed by poets during the Augustan Age in Rome.
Low Comedy. Chapman’s career as a dramatist was divided fairly evenly between comedy and tragedy, with his early years largely devoted to comedies patterned after classical Roman models by Plautus and Terence. Chapman’s first comedy, The Blind Beggar of Alexandria, is specifically modeled on the low comic theater of Plautus. It is an irreverent sexual farce wherein the title character succeeds in seducing a series of women through roleplaying and manipulation. Certain critics consider the play the first example of the ‘‘Comedy of Humours,’’ a type of comedy traditionally attributed to Ben Jonson. Also considered an example of low comedy, A Humorous Day’s Mirth features a plot of great complexity that revolves around the clever romantic intrigues of a courtier named Lemot. All Fools, an adaptation of Terence’s Heauton Timoroumenos, is similarly a romantic farce focusing on the rituals of courtship and marriage. Eastward Ho is perhaps Chapman’s best-known dramatic achievement. Produced in 1604 and intended to capitalize on the success of Thomas Dekker and John Webster’s Westward Ho, the play explores the social milieu of London’s middle class and is considered an excellent example of the city-comedy genre. Chapman’s last noncollaborative comedy, The Gentleman Usher, is cited by many commentators as his finest work in that genre.
Legacy. While the plays and poetry of Chapman have largely fallen out of favor, his status as a true Renaissance man marks him as an inspirational figure in the vein of Leonardo da Vinci. Indeed, it was Chapman’s diverse interests—from philosophy to poetry to drama to history—that eventually led to his translating the works of Homer. It is in this role, much more than in his prodigious output as dramatist and poet, that Chapman influenced later generations, particularly the Romantic poets, especially John Keats, who immortalized Chapman’s work in the well-known sonnet ‘‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.’’
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Chapman adapted the stories of past masters for contemporary audiences. This spirit of recasting familiar classics in contemporary settings is common throughout the history of literature, art, and film. Here are a few more works that attempt to tell familiar stories to new audiences:
Clueless (1995), a film directed by Amy Heckerling. This film attempts to update Jane Austen's 1816 novel Emma about a matchmaking debutante and all the problems her meddling causes.
A Thousand Acres (1991), a novel by Jane Smiley. A retelling of Shakespeare's King Lear, this novel takes place on a farm in Iowa in the twentieth century rather than on the windswept plains of twelfth-century England.
O, Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), a film directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Homer's Odyssey is changed into a comedy about three prison escapees in Mississippi during the Great Depression who encounter modern representations of classic Homeric characters, including the Sirens and a Cyclops, on their way home.
Works in Critical Context
Overall, the verdict on Chapman’s dramatic work is varied. While many critics note Chapman’s competence in plot and characterization, as well as his philosophical depth, others disparage his style as obtuse and overly elaborate. While Chapman is frequently praised as an adept technician, his inability to entertain has been criticized just as often. Referred to by many as genius, the works that have received the most attention are Chapman’s translations.
Chapman as Dramatist. Critics agree that Chapman’s finest dramatic achievement was in tragedy. In his best-regarded works, he turned to French history for appropriate subjects. His first and most important tragedy, Bussy D’Ambois, is based on the life of Louis de Clermont d’Amboise, Seigneur de Bussy, a notorious duelist and adventurer at the court of Henry III. Bussy is cast as a classical hero, echoing Hercules, Prometheus, and other mythical archetypes. Recently, critics have explored the relation of Bussy to the title hero of Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, arguing that both characters personify the Herculean hero type admired by the Italian Humanists. Chapman wrote a sequel, The Revenge of Bussy DAmbois, considered a far weaker play. The work is completely imaginary; none of the characters and events relates to French history as in the original. The play’s indecisive protagonist, Bussy’s avenging brother Clermont, is generally assumed to be patterned after Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
The Conspiracy and Tragedy of Charles, Duke of Byron deals with the intrigues and eventual execution of a prominent courtier serving Henry IV. An early performance in 1608 aroused the wrath of the French ambassador, who ordered the arrest of three actors because of a scandalous scene between the king’s wife and his mistress. The play was so heavily censored by government authorities that the 1625 reprint bore little resemblance to the original. Chapman’s final tragedies, Caesar and Pompey and The Tragedy of Chabot, Admiral of France, further elaborate on the theme of the stoic hero, but they have received less critical attention.
Chapman the Translator Chapman’s translations of Homer’s epic poetry have received significant critical attention, not only during his own lifetime, but also during the Romantic period in particular. The degree to which his translations successfully communicate Homer’s language and meaning is now widely disputed because of Chapman’s limited knowledge of classical Greek and his free interpretation of Homer’s original text. Proponents of Chapman’s translations suggest that their value must be measured by their ability to capture the spirit of the original, which was, without question, one of Chapman’s greatest strengths. Scholars argue that Chapman’s achievement as a translator must be assessed in light of his own poetic theories. As Raymond B. Waddington puts it, Chapman ‘‘regarded his job as translation, making the universal values of Homer comprehensible and therefore relevant to his own time and culture.’’ In that sense, the popularity of his translations attests to their success, both during his lifetime and more than two hundred years after his death.
Responses to Literature
1. As noted above, Chapman’s translations of Homer have been defended because they catch the spirit of the original text in the English of Chapman’s time. Imagine you have written a novel that is to be translated into another language five hundred years from now. Would you rather the translator ‘‘get the spirit’’ of your novel or that the translator faithfully translate each and every word?
2. Chapman, Ben Jonson, and John Marston were imprisoned for their play Eastward Ho. Do you think Chapman and the others had any idea they would provoke such an extreme reaction? What other artists have been imprisoned because of their work? Do you think controversial writers know ahead of time that they will be punished in some way for their art? Make a list of at least five issues of today that cause strong, sometimes violent, reactions from people. Beside each issue, include a brief explanation of why you think people have such strong reactions to it. (Think about animal-rights rallies or abortion protests.)
3. Read Chapman’s Bussy D’Ambois. A number of Chapman’s dramas have been described as ‘‘overly elaborate,’’ in the sense that the text is unnecessarily complex. Based on your reading of Bussy DAmbois, do you think the plot is ‘‘overly elaborate?’’ Support your response with examples from the play.
Alpers, Paul J., ed. Elizabethan Poetry. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967.
Donno, Elizabeth Story, ed. Elizabethan Minor Epics. New York: Columbia University Press, 1963.
Keach, William. Elizabethan Erotic Narratives. Piscataway, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1977.
Kermode, Frank. Shakespeare, Spenser, Donne. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971.
Lord, George de Forest. Homeric Renaissance: The Odyssey of George Chapman. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1956.
MacLure, Millar. George Chapman: A Critical Study. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1966.
Rees, Ennis. The Tragedies of George Chapman. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1954.
Snare, Gerald. The Mystification of George Chapman. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1989.
Waddington, Raymond B. The Mind’s Empire: Myth and Narrative Form in George Chapman’s Narrative Poems. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974.
Waith, Eugene M. The Herculean Hero in Marlowe, Chapman, Shakespeare, and Dryden. New York: Columbia University Press, 1962.