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George Chapman: Shakespeare’s forgotten rival from Hitchin

PUBLISHED: 13:21 30 May 2017 | UPDATED: 13:21 30 May 2017

George Chapman's house in Tilehouse Street

George Chapman's house in Tilehouse Street

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Poet, playwright, translator of epics, Hitchin’s George Chapman was a renowned contemporary of the Bard. Martin Elvery explores the life and work of this largely forgotten literary force

George Chapman's house in Tilehouse StreetGeorge Chapman's house in Tilehouse Street

Last year the media was filled to bursting with commemorations of the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare as critics mused on the lasting impression left by England’s greatest playwright who lived from 1564 to 1616. In contrast to the hero worship of Shakespeare, the anniversaries of the birth and death of Hertfordshire’s own early modern literary powerhouse, George Chapman, will go almost unnoticed.

This is largely because many modern scholars have written off the work of this dramatist, translator, poet and classical scholar – born in Hitchin in 1559 and who died this month in 1634 – as obscure, difficult to read and even harder to understand. Yet his biographer Gerald Snare declares he leaves behind an enduring legacy which ‘stands as equal’ to many better known writers from the period.

Indeed, Chapman may have been so popular and in demand that he had Shakespeare quaking in his boots about the competition. In his Sonnets 78 to 86, Shakespeare mentions an unnamed ‘fair youth’ competing for the attention of young people. The speaker in the sonnet admits he cannot fairly describe the young man because of his jealousy towards him. Many historians believe this ‘rival poet’ was most likely George Chapman.

Shakespeare had reason to be worried. In the competitive world of the royal court and London’s emerging theatre scene, he was vying for the attention of rich patrons to commission work. And while Shakespeare had little formal education and not much in the way of Latin or Greek, Chapman was a scholar with a great command of ancient texts and languages.

We don’t know much about Chapman’s early life in the county but we do know he was born in Hitchin and grew up there; the second son of Thomas Chapman and Joan Nodes.

His mother died while George was still a child. It seems probable he was educated at the house of a wealthy landowner, Sir Ralph Sadler, who owned the manor house at Temple Dinsley at Preston near Hitchin and also had a seat at Sandon. Chapman went up to Oxford, but perhaps drawn by the more vibrant literary scene of the capital, he left before taking his degree.

Chapman’s first known poems were heavily influenced by the classical ideals of rationality and order. The Shadow of Night – Two Poetical Hymnes, was published in 1594, followed by Ovid’s Banquet of Sense. These were packed with references to ancient Roman and Greek myths and full of pathos and allegory. His next was a hagiographic poem about the 16th century explorer Sir Walter Raleigh.

Chapman is probably best known today for his English translations of Homer’s epic poems The Odyssey and The Iliad. A feat that required a superb knowledge of Latin, Greek and classical literature. His translations are still recognised for their dramatic power and emotion.

Like many poets of his day, Chapman seems to have struggled to attract patronage and backing for work and often faced periods of debt. Trying to get backers from the nobility or royal family was a tricky business – flattery in print was at its core.

Unfortunately for Chapman, he attracted the backing of Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex, with his early translations of Homer. Essex was a brilliant but somewhat unstable courtier who was desperate to prove himself with an ageing Elizabeth I. After a disastrous military campaign in Ireland and an ill-judged rebellion, Essex was promptly executed by the queen he idolised.

One of Chapman’s comedies, Eastward Ho, proved a hit with the public but did not sit well with the new King James (of Scotland and England) who took offence that the play remarked there were far too many Scots in England now he was on the throne. Chapman was thrown in jail for some weeks along with fellow playwright Ben Jonson.

Despite his setbacks, Chapman won popular acclaim with his plays and this may have been the reason Shakespeare saw him as a serious rival among the many competing theatres and groups of actors in London.

Initially Chapman wrote for the Henslowe’s company but later joined the Children of the Chapel, which performed at the Blackfriars Theatre, at the old Dominican priory, very near Shakespeare’s Globe. In 1603 the company produced Chapman’s first and best-known tragedy, Bussy D’Ambois. The play tells the story of an obnoxious member of the French royal court who succeeds in becoming a favourite of King Henry III. But he dramatically falls from grace after having an affair with a nobleman’s wife and is lured to his death by her jealous husband. It proved a hit with theatre-goers, appearing in five different written editions by 1657.

Other plays performed by the Children of the Chapel included a farce called The Old Joiner of Aldgate, which landed Chapman in hot water after he was sued for slander.

Another comedy, May Day, has strong similarities to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with its many lovers and multiple affairs. There were dramas too, including The Blind Beggar of Alexandria. A late work, Caesar and Pompey, was akin to Shakespeare’s history plays.

Like Shakespeare, there are as many questions surrounding Chapman’s life as there are answers. We know he faced periods of debt, but almost nothing is known about the last 20 years of his life. Could it be that he settled into a peaceful and relatively wealthy retirement?

Chapman died in May of 1634. Inigo Jones, the most famous architect and stage designer of his time, created a Romanesque monument for his tomb in the churchyard of St-Giles-in-the-Fields in London’s West End – often dubbed ‘the poets’ church’.

Take a walk up winding old Tilehouse Street in Hitchin and you can still see Chapman’s home. An Historic England blue plaque simply reads, ‘Here lived George Chapman poet, playwright and translator, 1559-1634’.

History may not shout his name as loud as some, but Chapman was a major literary figure in his time, and more than likely had the Bard looking over his shoulder.

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