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THE SHORT STORY OF THE RENAISSANCE
The sixteenth century saw the end of the old order of fiction. In the latter half of that century this literature, which had received its form and its types from France, the intellectual leader of the Middle Ages, gave place to a new fiction, borrowed indirectly from Italy, the mother of the Renaissance. In this fiction the short story was paramount. It resembled the medieval short story in that its form and spirit came from abroad; it differed in that no master, like Chaucer, came to develop its full possibilities. Instead, as we shall see, it gave all its vigor to the drama and to other literary forms, passing away finally without achieving a masterpiece of the first order.
It was the so-called novella of the Italians which brought in this new fiction. The novella, in a typical form, is still familiar in The Decameron of Boccaccio. That work, though composed in 1353, before The Canterbury Tales, and long before the coming of the Renaissance to sixteenth-century England, is the prototype of the many collections which succeeded it, and which poured their wealth into England. The stories of The . Decameron are in subject not all short stories. Many have the larger organism of what the French call the nouvelle-some, indeed, are condensed romances. This
in spirit and in substance they belong. Nor have I noted the continual cross-reference between the varieties of the true short story: the conte dévot which is half apologue; the lai which is half fabliau; this in the interest of greater simplicity. For a detailed discussion of the whole period, with full bibliographical details, see The Short Story in English, Chapters I-V.
was also true of the medieval collections. But all are written with brevity and point. They are, in truth, exemplary stories, but though not differing from the best of the medieval exempla in form, all are infused with a freedom of observation, a passion for life, and an interest in places and in character which denotes work of the Renaissance. The later novelle of Bandello, of Straparola, of Cinthio-names familiar to us because of their association with the plots of Shakespeare's playsdo not differ strongly from these narratives of Boccaccio, except that their stories retain less of the character of exempla, and draw more freely upon historical anecdote. Thus the Italian novella was a short prose story, in shortstory form, though not always with a short-story subject. But, more important, it was a vehicle for the conveyance of all manner of fresh observation upon life and character. It was this which made it appeal to the English of the Renaissance."
Professor Schelling has made clear in his recent book on Elizabethan literature that the Elizabethan age must be regarded as a period of translation as well as of creation. The proportion of this ardor for translation which was spent upon the novella can be judged from the angry scoldings of such moralists as Ascham, who thought that the new story was too warm for the youth of England. The monuments which remain, numerous as they are, represent but a part of the work. It is certain that from 1566, when Painter Englished his collection of French and English stories, until the end of the century, the novella, in translation, imitation, or adaptation, was the popular fiction of Englishmen.
William Painter's book, The Palace of Pleasure *For a general discussion of the sources of the Renaissance short story, see The Short Story in English, Chapter VI.
(1566-67), will serve as an example of this novella, as it first appeared in English dress. The Palace is a voluminous collection adorned by selections from the chief novella writers of Italy, reinforced by narratives from the French, most of which had more remotely been Italian, and enriched by tales from Herodotus and other classic authors, which resembled in substance and in form the Italian stories. I give the quaint sub-title of one narrative whose plot was destined to greater fame than Painter, or his French and Italian predecessors in the telling, could give: “The goodly Hystory of the true, and constant Love between Rhomeo and Julietta, the one of whom died of Poyson, and the other of sorrow, and hevinesse: wherein be comprysed many adventures of Love, and other devises touching the same." After an introduction which says that at Verona scarcely “their blubbred eyes be yet dry, that saw and beheld that lamentable sight,” the story begins: “ When the Senior Escala was Lord of Verona, there were two families in the Citty, of farre greater fame than the rest, as well for riches as Nobility: the one called the Montesches, and the other the Capellets: but lyke as most commonly there is discorde amongs theym which be of semblable degree in honour, even so there hapned a certayne enmity betweene them: and for so mutch as the beginning thereof was unlawfull, and of ill foundation, so lykewyse in processe of time it kindled to sutch flame, as by divers and sundry devyses practised on both sides, many lost their lyves.” A love intrigue supplies the plot of most of these stories. They are simply written, with few digressions, few flourishes, and little or no originality on the part of their translator. Personality finds little place in them, for it was the plot and not the characters which interested their writers, and yet they savor of real life, especially the tales
from France and Italy, and are full of potentiality. In England, these foreign tales were the first successful short stories in prose; they were the first successful transcript into literature of the men and women of the new epoch.
Painter's stories had a great vogue. Many collections of the same kind followed, and some writers of the day, Gascoigne, for example, went so far as to put forth original narratives purporting to be, like Painter's, translated from the Italian. But, unfortunately for the short story, though fortunately for English literature, the men of original talent who now entered the Elizabethan field were dramatists, not story-tellers; or, if they were both, were usually more vigorous and more original in the drama than in fiction. They turned prose to poetry, and raised fiction to their stage. Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, Othello, are edifices much more vast and infinitely more rich than the novelle from which they were derived. Thus almost from the moment of its introduction, the new short story began to be transformed into another type of literature in which the Time Spirit of the Age, so it proved, was to find itself more at home.
But the Elizabethan short stories were not without an excellence and a literary development of their own. Though far less successful than the best of the drama which was made from them, these narratives held many a cupful of pleasure for our ancestors, and may for us. In the beginning they were good stories well and simply told, with the ringing plot and the possible characters which give permanency of value. And when they had entered upon the strange development now to be recounted, they became, at the expense of an opportunity to become great fiction, almost the most Elizabethan of Elizabethan literature.
The important agents in the literary development of the Elizabethan short story were Painter, Fenton, Pettie, Lyly, and Greene. Painter's famous Palace was followed in 1567 by the Tragical Discourses of the ambitious young courtier, Geoffrey Fenton. These histories, ten in number, had once been fairly compact novelle, of a semi-historical character, included in a collection of Lombard tales by Bandello, a fifteenth-century resident of Milan. Before they came to Fenton's eyes they had been worked over by Belleforest, a French scholar and humanist associated with the famous Pleiad who tried to make over French verse. A scholar and a rhetorician, Belleforest had applied to these simple Italian stories all the art, all the knowledge, and, one may add, all the pedantry, which humanists were lavishing upon the vulgar tongues in the attempt to raise them in dignity and in ornament to the level of classic Latin. Bandello's straightforward novelle emerged like a plain man in an academic gown and hood. They were double the length, stuck full of elegant similes, choice allusions, and polite discourses on the subject nearest the heart of the Renaissance, the proper conduct of life. Now it was ten of these inflated stories that Fenton took over into English. The rhetorical he made more rhetorical; to the discourses he added discourses of his own in a style whose pompous sonority showed his ambition to make these narratives literature; and, so doing, he seems to have pointed the way for Elizabethan fiction. The Countess of Celant was probably his masterpiece. It is a horrible story of love and crime, upon which is raised a framework of letters, orations, and moral comment, the whole finished off with classical allusion, intricate simile, and every device which the rhetorician could command. Tiresóme, yes, but interesting, too, for it was the beginning of one of the most