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

I. Translators

§ 3. Painter and Fenton

The modern world yielded as rich a spoil as the ancient. The Italianate Englishman, bitterly reproached by his contemporaries, brought back from Italy, with his fantastic costume and new-fangled manners, a love of Italian literature and of Italian romance. From across the Alps came our knowledge of the court, of arms and of the arts. In a famous passage, Ascham deplored the encroaching influence. Evil as he thought the Morte Arthure, “the whole pleasure of which booke standeth in two speciall poyntes, in open mans slaughter, and bold bawdrye,” he declared that “ten Morte Arthures do not the tenth part so much harme as one of these bookes, made in Italie, and translated in England.” Yet their growing popularity could not be gainsaid:

  • “That which is most to be lamented”—again Ascham speaks—“and therefore more nedefull to be looked to, there be mo of these ungratious bookes set out in Printe within these fewe monethes, than have been sene in England many score yeare before.”
  • Ascham wrote in 1567, and there is no doubt that he had in his mind William Painter’s Palace of Pleasure, of which the first volume was published in 1566, the second in 1567, and Geffraie Fenton’s Certaine Tragicall Discourses (1567). Few books of the time had a more immediate and profound influence than these. They entertained the court and were an inspiration to the poets. Had it not been for Painter, the English drama would have taken another path. The stories of blood and desire, appropriate to the ferocity of the Italian republics, were eagerly retold by our dramatists, avid of the fierce emotions which Elizabeth’s peaceful England did not encourage in act. The tale of borrowings from Painter’s Palace is a long one. Shakespeare and Webster, Marston and Massinger, all owe a debt to the ingenious writer whom Ascham savagely condemned. And they could not have gone for their plots to a better source. For Painter was a true child of his age. His ambition, like the ambition of the chroniclers, was encyclopaedic. He aimed, not at telling one story, but at telling all stories. He began at the beginning and carried his work to the very end. It would be difficult to find a plot that has not its origin, or its counterpart, in Painter’s treasure-house. His earliest stories are taken from Livy, Herodotus and Aulus Gellius; and, presently, he seeks his originals in the works of queen Margaret and Boccaccio, of Bandello and Straparola. Whatever were the origin and substance of his tales, he reduced them all to a certain plainness. He had a ready talent for story-telling; he cultivated a straightforward style; and, unlike the most of his fellows, he avoided embroidery. His popularity, therefore, is easily explained: his work was quickly intelligible to simple folk, and the dramatists had no difficulty in clothing his dry bones with their romantic imagery. But they acknowledged their debt with a difference. Shakespeare did not scruple to borrow the very words of North and Holinshed. He took no more than the plot from Painter’s version of Rhomeo and Julietta.

    Ascham’s judgment of Painter and Fenton, foolish and unjust as it is, seems to have been anticipated by the translator of the Tragicall Discourses of Bandello. Fenton, indeed, securely defends himself against the detraction of the puritan. In an epistle dedicatory, addressed to the lady Mary Sidney, he professes that his choice of stories was made with the best motive. He had no other desire than to improve the occasion.

  • “Albeit, at the firste sighte,” says he, “theis discourses maye importe certeine vanytyes or fonde practises in love, yet I doubte not to bee absolved …, seinge I have rather noted diversitie of examples in sondrye younge men and women, approvynge sufficientlye the inconvenience happenynge by the pursute of lycenceous desyer, then affected in anye sorte suche uncerteyne follyes.”
  • If Bandello incurred censure, what sentence would have been passed upon Boccaccio? Though his Decameron was involved in the harsh judgment passed upon Painter’s Palace, though some stories found a place in Turbervile’s Tragical Tales, it was not known to England, save in fragments, until 1620. His Philocopo was translated in 1567 by H. G., and, twenty years later, Bartholomew Young did into English the Amorous Fiammetta, wherein is sette doune a catalogue of all and singular passions of love and jealosie incident to an enamoured yong gentleman. Of the other Italian books, thus early done into English, the most famous was Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano, of which Hoby’s version won the difficult approval of Ascham himself. This book, he said, “advisedlie read, and diligentile folowed, but one yeare at home in England, would do a yong gentleman more good, I wisse, then three yeares travell abrode spent in Italie.” And then came Machiavelli, whose Arte of Warre, as has been said, was Englished by Peter Whitehorne (1560), and of whose Florentine Historie we owe an excellent version to Thomas Bedingfield (1598). But there is no Prince in English until 1640, and thus we are confronted by a literary puzzle.