Home  »  Volume IV: English PROSE AND POETRY SIR THOMAS NORTH TO MICHAEL DRAYTON  »  § 3. Lyric Poetry in the Drama

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

VI. The Song-Books and Miscellanies

§ 3. Lyric Poetry in the Drama

Another valuable field for the lyric poetry of the time was afforded by the drama; and, in considering this, it is necessary to bear in mind the important part played in the Elizabethan drama by the children of the queen’s chapel and other companies of boy-actors, who were trained musicians and made music a prominent feature of their performances. Lyly, Marston, Jonson and others who wrote for these companies would regard songs as an essential feature of the book of the play, though, in certain cases, the play was printed without them. Again, in masques, acted by amateurs at court or in the houses of noblemen, music played a large part, and Jonson, Daniel and other authors of masques were careful to provide songs. Music was less cultivated in the public theatre, but it was far from being unknown there; and the number of songs to be found in Shakespeare’s plays would of itself be sufficient proof that men-actors found it expedient to consult the contemporary passion for music.

So early as the middle of the sixteenth century, we find, in Ralph Roister Doister, a rollicking song from the hero of the comedy; but the drama first became a fit field for the lyric with John Lyly. His Alexander and Campaspe contains the beautiful and familiar poem, “Cupid and my Campaspe played”; his Midas is the source of a lyric almost equally well known, “Sing to Apollo, god of day.” Lyly’s example was followed, in particular, in the plays of the university wits; and the practice became general. Greene, Peele, Nashe, Dekker, Beaumont and Fletcher, Massinger, Ford, Heywood and many others incorporated songs with their dramas; and the custom continued till the closing of the theatres in 1642, to be resumed at their reopening. Indeed, it was, to some extent, under the pretext of music that Sir William D’Avenant was able to revive the drama under the protectorate.