George Chapman

For other people named George Chapman, see George Chapman (disambiguation).
George Chapman

George Chapman. Frontispiece engraving for The Whole Works of Homer (1616) attributed to William Hole
Born c. 1559
Hitchin, Hertfordshire, England
Died 12 May 1634(1634-05-12)
Occupation Writer
Nationality English
Period Elizabethan
Genre Tragedy, Translation
Notable works Bussy D'Ambois, Translations of Homer

George Chapman (Hitchin [Hertfordshire], c. 1559 – London,12 May 1634) was an English dramatist, translator, and poet. He was a classical scholar whose work shows the influence of Stoicism. Chapman has been identified as the Rival Poet of Shakespeare's sonnets by William Minto, and as an anticipator of the Metaphysical Poets of the 17th century. Chapman is best remembered for his translations of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, and the Homeric Batrachomyomachia.

Life and work

Chapman was born at Hitchin in Hertfordshire. There is conjecture that he studied at Oxford but did not take a degree, though no reliable evidence affirms this. Very little is known about Chapman's early life, but Mark Eccles uncovered records that reveal much about Chapman's difficulties and expectations.[1] In 1585 Chapman was approached in a friendly fashion by John Wolfall, Sr., who offered to supply a bond of surety for a loan to furnish Chapman money "for his proper use in Attendance upon the then Right Honorable Sir Rafe Sadler Knight." Chapman's courtly ambitions led him into a trap. He apparently never received any money, but he would be plagued for many years by the papers he had signed. Wolfall had the poet arrested for debt in 1600, and when in 1608 Wolfall's son, having inherited his father's papers, sued yet again, Chapman's only resort was to petition the Court of Chancery for equity.[2] As Sadler died in 1587, this gives Chapman little time to have trained under him. It seems more likely that he was in Sadler's household from 1577–83, as he dedicates all his Homerical translations to him.

Chapman spent the early 1590s abroad, and saw military action in the Low Countries fighting under renowned English general Sir Francis Vere. His earliest published works were the obscure philosophical poems The Shadow of Night (1594) and Ovid's Banquet of Sense (1595). The latter has been taken as a response to the erotic poems of the age, such as Philip Sidney's Astrophil and Stella and Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis. Chapman's life was troubled by debt and his inability to find a patron whose fortunes did not decline: Robert Devereux, Second Earl of Essex and the Prince of Wales, Prince Henry both met their ends prematurely. The former was executed for treason by Elizabeth I in 1601, and the latter died of typhoid fever at the age of eighteen in 1612. Chapman's resultant poverty did not diminish his ability or his standing among his fellow Elizabethan poets and dramatists.

Chapman died in London, having lived his latter years in poverty and debt. He was buried at St Giles in the Fields. A monument to him designed by Inigo Jones marked his tomb, and stands today inside the church.



By the end of the 1590s, Chapman had become a successful playwright, working for Philip Henslowe and later for the Children of the Chapel. Among his comedies are The Blind Beggar of Alexandria (1596; printed 1598), An Humorous Day's Mirth (1597; printed 1599), All Fools (printed 1605), Monsieur D'Olive (1605; printed 1606), The Gentleman Usher (printed 1606), May Day (printed 1611), and The Widow's Tears (printed 1612). His plays show a willingness to experiment with dramatic form: An Humorous Day's Mirth was one of the first plays to be written in the style of "humours comedy" which Ben Jonson later used in Every Man in his Humour and Every Man Out of his Humour. With The Widow's Tears, he was also one of the first writers to meld comedy with more serious themes, creating the tragicomedy later made famous by Beaumont and Fletcher.

Grave of George Chapman in the Church of St. Giles, London. The tombstone was designed and paid for by Inigo Jones

He also wrote one noteworthy play in collaboration. Eastward Ho (1605), written with Jonson and John Marston, contained satirical references to the Scots which landed Chapman and Jonson in jail. Various of their letters to the king and noblemen survive in a manuscript in the Folger Library known as the Dobell MS, and published by AR Braunmuller as A Seventeenth Century Letterbook. In the letters, both men renounced the offending line, implying that Marston was responsible for the injurious remark. Jonson's "Conversations With Drummond" refers to the imprisonment, and suggests there was a possibility that both authors would have their "ears and noses slit" as a punishment, but this may have been Jonson elaborating on the story in retrospect.

Chapman's friendship with Jonson broke down, perhaps as a result of Jonson's public feud with Inigo Jones. Some satiric, scathing lines, written sometime after the burning of Jonson's desk and papers, provide evidence of the rift. The poem lampooning Jonson's aggressive behaviour and self-believed superiority remained unpublished during Chapman's lifetime; it was found in documents collected after his death.


Chapman's greatest tragedies took their subject matter from recent French history, the French ambassador taking offence on at least one occasion. These include Bussy D'Ambois (1607), The Conspiracy and Tragedy of Charles, Duke of Byron (1608), The Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois (1613) and The Tragedy of Chabot, Admiral of France (published 1639). The two Byron plays were banned from the stage—although, when the Court left London, the plays were performed in their original and unexpurgated forms by the Children of the Chapel.[3] The French ambassador probably took offence to a scene which portrays Henry IV's wife and mistress arguing and physically fighting. On publication, the offending material was excised, and Chapman refers to the play in his dedication to Sir Thomas Walsingham as "poore dismembered Poems." His only work of classical tragedy, Caesar and Pompey (ca. 1613?) is generally regarded as his most modest achievement in the genre.

Other plays

Chapman wrote one of the most successful masques of the Jacobean era, The Memorable Masque of the Middle Temple and Lincoln's Inn, performed on 15 February 1613. According to Kenneth Muir, The Masque of the Twelve Months, performed on Twelfth Night 1619 and first printed by John Payne Collier in 1848 with no author's name attached, is also ascribed to Chapman.[4]

Chapman's authorship has been argued in connection with a number of other anonymous plays of his era.[5] F. G. Fleay proposed that his first play was The Disguises. He has been put forward as the author, in whole or in part, of Sir Giles Goosecap, Two Wise Men And All The Rest Fools, The Fountain Of New Fashions, and The Second Maiden's Tragedy. Of these, only 'Sir Gyles Goosecap' is generally accepted by scholars to have been written by Chapman (The Plays of George Chapman: The Tragedies, with Sir Giles Goosecap, edited by Allan Holaday, University of Illinois Press, 1987).

In 1654, bookseller Richard Marriot published the play Revenge for Honour as the work of Chapman. Scholars have rejected the attribution; the play may have been written by Henry Glapthorne. Alphonsus Emperor of Germany (also printed 1654) is generally considered another false Chapman attribution.[6]

The lost plays The Fatal Love and A Yorkshire Gentlewoman And Her Son were assigned to Chapman in Stationers' Register entries in 1660. Both of these plays were among the ones destroyed in the famous kitchen burnings by John Warburton's cook. The lost play Christianetta (registered 1640) may have been a collaboration between Chapman and Richard Brome, or a revision by Brome of a Chapman work.

Poet and translator

Other poems by Chapman include: De Guiana, Carmen Epicum (1596), on the exploits of Sir Walter Raleigh; a continuation of Christopher Marlowe's unfinished Hero and Leander (1598); and Euthymiae Raptus; or the Tears of Peace (1609). Some have considered Chapman to be the "rival poet" of Shakespeare's Sonnets.

From 1598 he published his translation of the Iliad in installments. In 1616 the complete Iliad and Odyssey appeared in The Whole Works of Homer, the first complete English translation, which until Pope's was the most popular in the English language and was the way most English speakers encountered these poems. The endeavour was to have been profitable: his patron, Prince Henry, had promised him £300 on its completion plus a pension. However, Henry died in 1612 and his household neglected the commitment, leaving Chapman without either a patron or an income. In an extant letter, Chapman petitions for the money owed him; his petition was ineffective. Chapman's translation of the Odyssey is written in iambic pentameter, whereas his Iliad is written in iambic heptameter. (The Greek original is in dactylic hexameter.) Chapman often extends and elaborates on Homer's original contents to add descriptive detail or moral and philosophical interpretation and emphasis. Chapman's translation of Homer was much admired by John Keats, notably in his famous poem On First Looking into Chapman's Homer, and also drew attention from Samuel Taylor Coleridge and T. S. Eliot.

Chapman also translated the Homeric Hymns, the Georgics of Virgil, The Works of Hesiod (1618, dedicated to Francis Bacon), the Hero and Leander of Musaeus (1618), and the Fifth Satire of Juvenal (1624).

Chapman's poetry, though not widely influential on the subsequent development of English poetry, did have a noteworthy effect on the work of T. S. Eliot.[7]


In Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem The Revolt of Islam, Shelley quotes a verse of Chapman's as homage within his dedication "to Mary__ __", presumably his wife Mary Shelley:

There is no danger to a man, that knows
What life and death is: there's not any law
Exceeds his knowledge; neither is it lawful
That he should stoop to any other law.[8]

The Irish playwright Oscar Wilde quoted the same verse in his part fiction, part literary criticism, "The Portrait of Mr. W.H.".[9]

The English poet John Keats wrote "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" for his friend Charles Cowden Clarke in October 1816. The poem begins "Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold" and is much quoted. For example, P. G. Wodehouse in his review of the first novel of The Flashman Papers series that came to his attention: "Now I understand what that 'when a new planet swims into his ken' excitement is all about."[10] Arthur Ransome uses two references from it in his children's books, the Swallows and Amazons series.[11]


From All Fooles, II.1.170-178, by George Chapman:

I could have written as good prose and verse
As the most beggarly poet of 'em all,
Either Accrostique, Exordion,
Epithalamions, Satyres, Epigrams,
Sonnets in Doozens, or your Quatorzanies,
In any rhyme, Masculine, Feminine,
Or Sdrucciola, or cooplets, Blancke Verse:
Y'are but bench-whistlers now a dayes to them
That were in our times....

See also


  1. Mark Eccles, "Chapman's Early Years", Studies in Philology 43.:2 (April 1946):176-93.
  2. For the text of Chapman's petition for relief, see A. R. Braunmuller, A Seventeenth Century Letter-Book: A Facsimile Edition of Folger MS. V. A. 321 (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1983), 395.
  3. Grace Ioppolo, Dramatists and Their Manuscripts in the Age of Shakespeare, Jonson, Middleton and Heywood, London, Routledge, 2006; p. 129.
  4. Martin Butler: George Chapman's Masque of the Twelve Months (1619). In: English Literary Renaissance 37 (Nov. 2007); pp. 360-400.
  5. Terence P. Logan and Denzell S. Smith, eds., The New Intellectuals: A Survey and Bibliography of Recent Studies in English Renaissance Drama, Lincoln, NE, University of Nebraska Press, 1977; pp. 155-60.
  6. Logan, Terence P., and Denzell S. Smith, eds. The Popular School: A Survey and Bibliography of Recent Studies in English Renaissance Drama. Lincoln, NE, University of Nebraska Press, 1975; pp. 151-7.
  7. Matthews, Steven. "T. S. Eliot's Chapman: 'Metaphysical' Poetry and Beyond." Journal of Modern Literature Vol. 29 No. 4 (Summer 2006), pp. 22-43.
  8. Hutchinson, Thomas (undated). The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley: Including Materials Never Before Printed in any Edition of the Poems & Edited with Textural Notes. E. W. Cole: Commonwealth of Australia; Book Arcade, Melbourne. p. 38. (NB: Hardcover, clothbound, embossed.) Published prior to issuing of ISBN.
  9. Wilde, Oscar (2003). "The Portrait of Mr. W.H.". Hesperus Press Limited 4 Rickett Street, London SW6 1RU. P.46. First published 1921.
  10. Quoted on current UK imprint of Flashman novels as cover blurb.
  11. A.N.Wilson's review in The Telegraph 15 August 2005


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