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Thus, the judgment of an outstanding 19th century literary figure (see below on Ward's masterly History of English Dramatic Literature). It is a judgment that has stood up remarkably well in the passing of almost a century since the work was first published. Students and scholars alike will find this famous history an invaluable source book on English literature.
Ward's lucid survey starts with the origin of the drama in England and the beginnings of regular drama. After an excellent account of Shakespeare's predecessors there is a long and astute section on Shakespeare himself, including a discussion of the dramatist's early influence on the Continent, especially in Germany. Volume II also covers Ben Jonson and the later Elizabethans, concluding with the "merits and defects" of Beaumont and Fletcher. Volume III ends the work with an examination of the later Stuart drama -- when prose had become permanently the vehicle of dramatic speech in English comedy -- and the decay of tragedy. From an early review by Richard Burton in The Dial : ... the work is beyond all compare the most exhaustive and important ... in its field .... When this monument of scholarly investigation appeared, in 1874, it was at once recognized as authoritative, and has held the position ever since.... Dr. Ward's survey of the native drama......stands alone among scholarly achievements by Englishmen.
The prime merit of the work, aside from thoroughness, good judgment in ample illustration, and the deduction of sound principles therefrom, lies in this giving of due attention to the history of the stage, while at the same time keeping the student to a realization of the drama's literary splendors ... drama in its technique as well as in its imaginative triumphs ...
"... take his admirable monograph (Vol. I, Chap. IV) on Shakespeare .... It would be difficult, even in the mass of similar attempts, to indicate another eighty pages which tell so much so well, and are so little open to criticism... This critic's independence and originality of thought appear to advantage in his closing remarks on the tailend of the Stuart drama."
Adolphus William Ward was born in 1837 and was educated at Cambridge. Besides the present work, he did studies of Chaucer and Dickens and was editor-in-chief from 1902 to 1912 of the Cambridge Modern History and co-editor from 1907-1916 of the Cambridge History of English Literature. His History of Germany 1815-1890 was published during World War I. Dr. Ward was master of Peterhouse, Cambridge University, for almost a quarter century until his death in 1924