1George Chapman (1559-1634): 'The best for Comedy'

George Chapman In a quiet corner of a once marshy and disreputable corner of London, in St Giles-in-the-Fields church, a monument stands to ‘Georgius Chapman, poeta’. Originally positioned in the yard on the south side of the church with the inscription ‘Georgius Chapmanius, poeta Homericus, Philosophus verus (etsi Christianus poeta)’ it was later brought inside the church where it stands today, with a new inscription cut under direction by the then Rector. Created by Inigo Jones after Chapman’s death on 12 May 1634, the once magnificent but now weathered and scarcely legible tribute stands to the man who contributed translations of Homer, poems, comedies and tragedies to the growing body of Renaissance literature. Yet the material which inspired Keats to write his well-known sonnet and prompted T. S. Eliot to plan an unwritten essay received mixed reception, both during Chapman’s life and in more recent critical discussion.

Wealth evaded Chapman, causing financial trouble in the form of loans and lawsuits, but also prompting the creation of dramatic triumphs. It has been suggested that were it not for Chapman’s desire to work on his translations and the need to fund this endeavour, the rich literary treasures of his plays, in particular his comedies, might not have been manifested on paper or transmitted into print. The Blind Beggar of Alexandria and An Humorous Day’s Mirth in particular provided Philip Henslowe with box-office hits, and payment for Chapman.

Indeed, despite publishing his first known work The Shadow of Night in 1594 at the advanced age of thirty-four, it was only four years later that Chapman’s labours received praise from Francis Meres. In 1598, Meres’s Palladis Tamia, Wits Treasury was printed, listing Chapman as one of ‘the best for Comedy amongst us’ along with Lyly, Greene, Shakespeare, Nashe, Heywood and Chettle.[1] Chapman is also listed among the best for tragedy, along with Marlowe, Shakespeare and Jonson, although none of these early tragedies have survived.

Basic facts concerning Chapman’s life are few. A description of Hitchin, Hertfordshire as his ‘native air’ in the ‘Inductio’ to The Tears of Peace identifies George’s birthplace, where he was born as second son to Thomas and Joan Chapman. An engraving featured in The Whole Works of Homer depicts a bearded man and enables an estimation of his birth year: the encircling inscription states that Chapman was fifty-seven in the year 1616, thus estimating his year of birth as 1559.

5Despite Anthony Wood’s assertion that Chapman went up to Oxford, no other confirmatory record has been found to support this. Jean Robertson cites Phyllis Brooks Bartlett’s point that ‘If he had studied the ancient tongues at Oxford, surely he would never have boasted that he was self-taught’, which he does in the Epilogue to the Hymns of Homer.[2] Unlike Shakespeare, Chapman had a plentiful knowledge of Latin and Greek, as his translations surely testify. Upon the death of their father, Thomas, the elder son, inherited the house and land, while George received one hundred pounds and two silver spoons. As two significant lawsuits illustrate, pecuniary need was to plague Chapman for much of his life.

An inscription found in a copy of Batrachomyomachia asserts that Chapman’s ‘youth was initiate’ in the house of ‘Ralph Sadler Esquire’.[3] A Chancery case filed in 1608 provides extra information concerning these years. It alleges that Chapman borrowed a sum of money from the convicted fraudster John Wolfall, the bond of which was dated 12 July 1585.[4] This detail is confirmed in Chapman’s 1608 bill of complaint against John Wolfall the younger, in which he explains the reason for the loan: ‘then having occasion to use a sum of money to furnish himself ... fit for his proper use in attendance upon the then Right Honourable Sir Ralph Sadler Knight’.[5] Chapman estimates that the bond was made roughly twenty-five years before, i.e. 1583, in order to serve Ralph Sadler. Sadler’s properties included Standon Hall, Hertfordshire, Duchy House in the Strand, London, as well as a manor house in the Hundred of Hitchin at Temple Dinsley. Although Sadler died in 1587, Chapman may have continued his service to the Sadler family beyond this date.

Two years later, in 1589, Chapman’s father died, leaving him the aforementioned money and spoons. It may have been this money which aided him to travel overseas, occupying some of the unknown years between service for Sadler and his first publication, The Shadow of Night, in 1594. The Chancery case also provides information volunteered by Wolfall the younger that his father had not pursued the bond due to ‘the absence of the saide complainant by yonde the seas’.[6]] This supports any suggestion that Chapman had spent some time abroad, time enough to prevent the elder Wolfall from collecting his bond. Chapman was active as a published poet and playwright in London from 1594 until 1600, when he was arrested for debt by Wolfall.[7]

It therefore makes sense to suggest, as Eccles has done, that Chapman’s period abroad occurred between the end of his service with Ralph Sadler and his poetic activity in London. As we cannot be sure when Chapman’s attendance upon the Sadlers ceased, despite knowing him to be in service in circa 1585, this must be the earliest date conjectured for his travels. It is more likely, or at least possible, that Chapman remained in Sadler’s service until the latter’s death in 1587. Robertson further claims that Chapman was likely to have been in England at the time his father’s will was proved on 5 June 1589.

A further, more specific suggestion regarding Chapman’s activity abroad is based upon evidence in Hymnus in Cynthiam in The Shadow of Night.[8] It is suggested that Chapman served as a soldier during campaigns in the Low Countries, as did Ben Jonson, and in particular was present at Sir Francis Vere’s ambush of Spanish troops at Nymeghen. The date of this exploit was 24 July 1591, thus falling within the estimated window of dates when Chapman is likely to have been on the Continent. Jonathan Hudston also suggests that further evidence of Chapman’s military service is to be found in the dedicatory letter to the Crowne of all Homers Workes which describes ‘an episode at Ghent in 1582’.[9]

10Eccles alternatively proposes that Chapman could have spent time in France, a popular destination for Elizabethan travellers. He points to the fact that ‘Chapman showed his special interest in France by choosing the subjects for five of his six surviving tragedies from French history’ (p. 190), not to mention An Humorous Day’s Mirth, which was set in Paris. This is not necessarily an indication of Chapman’s experience as a traveller, since, as Eccles also points out, it is known that Chapman had access to Edward Grimestone’s translation of Jean de Serre’s Inventaire Général de l’Histoire de France (1607).[10] Robertson notes the commendatory poem written for Grimestone by Chapman which describes the former as ‘his long-lov’d and worthy friend’, and Eccles remarks that Chapman’s grandmother, Margaret Grimston née Nodes, was of the same family as the beloved historian.

If Chapman was driven to writing plays as a means of supporting his translation work his efforts paid off. However, John Wolfall commented of Chapman: ‘at the first being a man of very good parts and expectation hath sithence very unadvisedly spent the most part of his time and his estate in fruitless and vain poetry’.[11] Contrary to Wolfall’s remarks, Chapman’s first two extant comedies at the Rose theatre, The Blind Beggar of Alexandria and An Humorous Day’s Mirth, were financial successes for Henslowe, suggesting popularity among audiences. However, among payments noted in Henslowe’s accounts for Chapman’s plays, some of which are now lost, are three records without statement of their purpose. This suggests that they might be loans, helping to buoy up a second son whose inheritance had long been spent. The first payment, or loan, is recorded on 10 June 1598 for 10s; the second is the same sum paid by Robert Shaa on 1 November of the same year. A third sum of £10 10s is named in a debt signed by Chapman.[12] Despite the success of his comedies, it would seem that perhaps George was in greater financial need than these earnings provided.

This may have persuaded the Chapman brothers to sell their contested interest in a family property for 120 pounds in 1599, the year the play was printed as An Humorous Day’s Mirth by Valentine Simmes. Financial issues were particularly pressing at this time, since the following year George’s debt to Wolfall again surfaced, resulting in his imprisonment in the Counter at Wood Street.[13]

The following year of 1601 delivered a further blow to Chapman’s fortunes with the execution of his patron, the Earl of Essex, for participation in a revolt against Elizabeth I. Chapman had written dedications to Essex in Seaven Bookes Of The Iliades, a translation of Homer, and in Achilles Shield, both published in 1598. He was appointed as sewer-in-ordinary to Prince Henry in 1604, who quickly became an eager patron and promised Chapman patronage and a pension; neither of these promises was fulfilled when the Prince died aged eighteen in November 1612.

Dedicating his Epicede on the death of the Prince to Henry Jones also failed to secure Chapman favour. In fact, Jones had been funding Chapman for two years, amassing a total debt of over one hundred pounds by 1612 when Jones decided to leave for Ireland. At this point he wished to settle the debt, drawing up a bond with George’s brother Thomas as guarantor. The dedication in the Epicede could thus be viewed as the attempted flattery of a man to whom Chapman owed a large quantity of money, or as an attempt to secure patronage which was subsequently blighted by Jones’s departure. C. J. Sisson has also suggested that ‘the dedication may have been bought and paid for, in order to give Henry Jones a public place among the patrons of a notable writer of the time’.[14] Despite attempts by Henry’s brother Peter to reclaim the money, judgement favoured Chapman, and relieved him of the debt’s burden on 8 February 1622.[15]

15As with the Wolfall suit, the records concerning the Jones case yield further interesting points of information regarding Chapman’s character and activity at this time. While Henry’s younger brother, Roger Jones, protested that ‘whether he [Chapman] may be termed a Poet or not this deponent ... doth not know’, Henry himself described Chapman as ‘a pleasant witty fellow, and one whom this deponent delighted and loved’.[16]

In 1615, Peter Jones, brother to Henry, began legal proceedings with the help of his lawyer, Richard Holman, ‘against the defendant Thomas Chapman the other defendant absenting himself whereby process could not be served upon him’.[17] Thomas, as guarantor, had been called to answer the debt, since George had left London out of fear of being imprisoned again.[18] Despite George’s sudden reappearance on 12 June 1617 to appeal to the Court of Chancery for time to gather evidence, both Holman and Roger Jones agreed that the younger Chapman brother was ‘of mean or poor estate’ and ‘doth now live in remote places and is hard to be found’.[19] Butman suggests that since Chapman was unavailable for the majority of the court case’s duration and absent from London, a point supported by a lack of extant records of drama performed or published, he may have been in hiding at his brother’s inherited house in Hitchin. The dates Butman suggests include autumn 1614 until autumn 1619, save for the 1617 court appearance already mentioned, during which time ‘the only works published by Chapman ... were translations from Musaeus and Hesiod, and the completed Works of Homer’.[20]

Before this suggested exile, Chapman had further courted controversy and unwelcome attention for celebrating the marriage of a badly chosen, but faithfully supported, patron, the Earl of Somerset. The latter began an affair with the Countess of Essex, Frances Devereux, née Howard, who consequently requested a divorce from her husband, citing his impotency as her reason. Chapman’s Andromeda Liberata (1614), written to celebrate this marriage, only served to slander the Earl of Essex, who was generally interpreted as being the ‘rock’ in the poem, from whom Andromeda, or the Countess (by way of a protracted court case), was freed. As a result, Chapman was forced to publish a Justification of the poem, discrediting its malicious interpretations. Despite this furore, Chapman dedicated his Odysses to Somerset the following year.

Chapman’s ‘Invective ... against Mr Ben Jonson’ is of uncertain date but must have been written after Jonson’s desk was destroyed by fire in 1623, to which incident Chapman makes reference. Bartlett suggests that Chapman may have been taking sides in a significant literary and dramatic controversy between Inigo Jones and Jonson, which culminated in Jonson ceasing to write further court masques for Jones after a quarrel in 1631. Bartlett notes that the argument ‘had been brewing for some time before’, and suggests that Jonson’s criticisms of Chapman’s Whole Works of Homer (1616) might have led to the degeneration of their friendship, and thus, Chapman’s affiliation with Jones.[21] Certainly, in 1618, Drummond of Hawthornden notes Jonson’s venomous dislike of Jones, whilst proclaiming affection for Chapman and praise for his masques.[22]

Little is known of Chapman’s later years, apart from his death one May day, recorded by his faithful dedicator, Inigo Jones, who was honoured in The Divine Poem of Musaeus (1616). John Davies of Hereford accurately summarised Chapman’s fortunes in a poem dedicated to the ‘Father of our English Poets’:[23]

But in thy hand too little coin doth lie;
For of all arts that now in London are,
Poets get least in uttering of their ware.