The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.
§ 6. Cromwell
The Life and Death of Lord Cromwell and Sir Thomas More are among the most notable examples in Elizabethan dramatic literature of what has been called the biographical chronicle play—an offshoot from the history or chronicle play proper, from which it differs in that its theme is not the events of a reign but the record of an individual life. Both of these plays have been attributed to Shakespeare, the former because on the title-page of the second edition of the play—that of 1613—stand the words, “written by W. S.,” and the latter, partly on internal evidence, and partly on the curious theory, first advanced by Richard Simpson, that some of the passages in the original manuscript of the play (Harleian MSS. 7368) are in Shakespeare’s handwriting.
Cromwell is so devoid of genuine dramatic and poetic power as to make its ascription to Shakespeare little better than an insult. The scenes hang loosely together, nowhere is there any sign of real grasp of character, and only the racy humour of Hodge, Cromwell’s servant, saves it from abject dulness. The desultory plot is taken from Foxe’s Story of the Life of the Lord Cromwell in the second volume of Actes and Monuments, and there is no reason to believe that the dramatist went to Bandello for his account of Cromwell’s dealings with the Florentine merchant, Frescobaldi. Foxe had already borrowed this story from the Italian novelist, and the dramatic version, throughout, is faithful to Foxe’s rendering of it. The conception of Cromwell as a popular hero who, having risen to eminence, delights in remembering the friends of his obscure youth, is, also, common to the biographer and the dramatist, and both, again, agree in adopting a strongly, at times blatantly, protestant standpoint. The studious omission of Henry VIII from the characters of the play indicates that it was written before the death of Elizabeth, and the general structure and versification point to a date of composition anterior by some years to its entry on the Stationers’ register on 11 August, 1602.