The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XVI. London and the Development of Popular Literature

§ 13. The Man in the Moone

Another indication of the new tendency is found in The Man in the Moone, a popular treatise on practical morality composed by W. M. in 1609. A belated traveller is represented as receiving hospitality one night from the typical wise man of romance, a venerable hermit who has seen all the world and condemns its vanity. Thirty years earlier, such a situation would have developed into a dialogue full of confessions, apostrophes and homilies. But, instead of a euphuistic disquisition, we learn that the wise man is regarded as a magician, and that folks are coming to have their fortunes told. A stripling opens the gate and describes the appearance of each visitor—drunkard, glutton, usurer, lover, tobacconist (tobacco-smoker) and parasite. An elder youth stands by the philosopher and delineates each character; the old man, as fortune teller, predicts the consequences of the enquirer’s way of living. This triple method of portraiture betrays no direct imitation, though some hints may have been drawn from the character sketches in Cynthia’s Revels. But so descriptive an examination of well-doing and ill-doing would hardly have been possible unless Hall had shown from Theophrastus how much personal details signify in morality.

Meanwhile, the character sketch was assuming a new aspect in the aristocratic circles of London. The period had come when a number of courtiers, who were also scholars and men of the world, were using their position to introduce among the ruling classes more “cultured” habits of thought and expression. A movement was on foot, similar to that which Mme. de Rambouillet was soon to lead in France. English humanists had no salons to which they could retreat from friction with the outer world, and where intercourse with ladies could change in one generation from insipid adulation to an artistic accomplishment. They cherished a literary life of their own, and they used the Theophrastian character sketch to draw attention to what was sordid or material both within the court and without. These compositions were an amusement, at first privately circulated. None the less, they encouraged and interested people in conversational style and, by emphasising the imperfections of others, raised their ideal for themselves.