Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB
[ocr errors]

and sceptres graced their hands. Neptune had his garland and his trident, and Mercury his wings. Armour was in common use on the stage. A great quantity of the theatrical wardrobe was of satin, velvet, taffety, and cloth of gold; ornamented with gold and silver lace, or embroidery, probably producing an effect little inferior to what is now witnessed 1). Greene introduces a player, in his Groats worth of Wit, boasting that his share in the stage apparel could not be sold for two hundred pounds.

The theatre being thus furnished for the reception of an audience, the next care of the manager was to announce to the public the entertainment prepared for them. For this purpose he availed himself of the multiplicity of posts, which formerly encumbered the streets of the metropolis: their conspicuousness being extremely favourable to the display of bills of the performance. The name of the play to be acted was printed without any list of the characters, or of the persons

who

were to personate them. The hour of performance varied at different theatres from belween one to three o'clock in the afternoon.

The situation of the Globe, and other places of public amusement on the side of the Thames opposite to the city, has made us acquainted with a point of our ancestors' manners. It was the very acme of gentility to be rowed across the river by a pair of oars: the employment of a sculler was carefully shunned by the fine gentleman as plebeian and ignoble. The company found their way to Blackfriars, and the theatres in Middlesex, on foot, on horseback, or in coaches.

No distinction seems to have been made in any of the theatres between the company frequenting the upper galleries or scaffolds, and the pit or yard. The “groundling" and "gallerycommoner” paid alike for admission to the places which they severally occupied, though that price varied with the rank and reputation of the theatre they went to: at the Blackfriars and the Globe they gave sixpence; at the Fortune twopence, and, at some of the inferior houses, as little as one penny. The best rooms, or boxes, at the Globe, were a shilling; at Blackfriars, apparently, sixpence more, and the price was subsequently raised even as high as half-a-crown. Such were the ordinary terms of admission to the theatres; but on the first night of a new play the prices were doubled, and, occasionally, trebled. Dramatic poets were admitted gratis. Nine or ten poids was the average, and double that sum a very extraordinary receipt at either the Globe or Blackfriars theatres 2).

It was customary in the theatres denominated private, to admit that class of spectators who frequented the boxes, on the stage, where they were accommodated with stools, for which they paid, according to the comparative eligibility of their situation, either sixpence or a shilling. Here the fastidious critic was usually to be met with, the wit ambitious of distinction, and the gallant studious of the display of his apparel, or his person. Either seated, or else reclining on the rushes on the floor, they regaled themselves with the pipes and tobacco which their attendant pages furnished. The felicity of their situations excited envy, or their affectation and impertinence disgust, among the less polished part of the audience, who frequently vented their spleen in hissing, hooting, and throwing dirt at the intruders on the stage: it was the cue of these gallants to display their high breeding by an entire disregard of the proceedings of the ill-mannered rabble.

Numerous methods were devised to wile away the tedious hour previous to the commencement of the performance: books and cards, nuts and apples, bottled ale and pipes, were placed in requisition by the varying tastes of the motley assemblage. À band, composed of trumpets, cornets, hantboys, lutes, recorders, viols, and organs, attended in the theatre, and by flourishes or soundings, at short intervals, announced the near approach of the commencement of the entertainment: the third sounding was the signal for the entrance of the Prologue, invariably dressed in a long black velvet cloak: his humble demeanour, and sup

A

1) Inventory of the properties of the Lord Admiral's Company, 1598.

2) The Globe was much the largest theatre, but its prices being less, its receipts did not exceed those of the Blackfriars house.

plicatory aspect and address, confessed the entire submission of the managers and actors to the public will. Only one dramatic piece was exlıibited, but relief and variety were given to the entertainment by the feats of dancers, tumblers, and conjurers, and the introduction of music between the acts. To what further extent the orchestra was made use of, is uncertain. Many old plays furnish instances of “enter music with a song," without the preservation of the song itself, and we are left to conjecture whether the songs were characteristic, or popular airs adopted for the occasion. Perhaps the earliest regular vocal character was that of Valerius, in Heywood's Rape of Lucrece, 1608: emboldened by success, the author continually augmented the number of the songs. Sir William Davenant appears to have been the first introducer of operatic pieces.

If the magnitude of his preparation was justly indicative of the importance of his occupation, the business of the critic was momentous. In aid of his natural acumen, he armed himself with a table-book, in which he maliciously noted down during the performance, passages for criticism; not forgetting, at the same time, to preserve such jests and crumbs of wit as would bear retailing in coffeehouses, and at the tables of the great, as appropriate opportunities occurred for their display. It was in vogue among these witlings to affect disgust at the performance by significant signs, and indecent indications of contempt :

“How monstrous and detested is't to see
A fellow that has neither art nor brain,
Sit like an Aristarchus, or stark ass,
Taking men's lines, with a tobacco face,
În snuff, still spitting, using his wry'd looks,
In nature of a vice, to wrest and turn
The good aspect of those that shall sit near him,

From what they do behold!” 2) They commonly also laughed aloud in the most serious scene of a tragedy, or rose, and quitted the theatre in scorn. The boisterous manifestations of dislike, hisses, howls, whistles, and imitations of the mewing of a cat, were more effectual in the condemnation of a new play, which then, as now, had final sentence passed on it the first time of its performance.

An epilogue was a usual, but not an invariable, appendage to a play. Sometimes, as in several of Shakspeare's dramas, it was spoken by one of the performers, and adapted to the character he had personated. În representations at noblemen's houses, a prayer for the patron of the company, and at the public theatres, for the king and queen, closed the performance. The prayer was sometimes interwoven in the epilogue. The actors paid this ostentatious piece of flattery on their knees before the audience, whose edification was, doubtless, commensurate with the piety that dictated the action.

The transition of the drama from sacred to profane subjects effected a gradual change in the performers of theatrical pieces, as well as in the place of performance. As the clergy receded from, the scholars and choir-boys advanced upon, the stage, and under the designation of “children" became, in the reigns of Elizabeth and James, proficient and popular performers. Their establishments were regarded as important, for it is no less true than extraordinary, that the masters of the schools and chapels were not only authorised by patent to educate children as comedians, but empowered to take up, and retain by force, such children as they deemed suitable to their purpose.

The earliest mention of professional players appears to be that of the “City Actors,” in the time of Edward the Fourth. Henry the Seventh had a company , of players. Henry the Eighth, and his successors, Edward and Mary, granted licences to comedians for the performance of all kinds of stage plays; and during those reigns, and indeed until the time of James, it was a common practice of the nobility to retain a few comedians for their occasional private recreation. The badge and livery of the noblemen whose servants these players were, protected them from the penalties of Elizabeth's act for the suppression of vagrancy in their

1) Jonson's Every. Man Out of his Humour.

strollings through the country, and, when theatres were erected in the metropolis, the same signs of noble service were their protection. Elizabeth palronised the drama very warmly. It was her constant practice, throughout her reign, to summon the children of the public schools and chapels, Paul's, Merchant Taylor's, Westminster, and Windsor, to entertain her with plays at court; and her progresses through the country were always

attended by a company of comedians. In 1574 she granted to four of the Earl of Leicester's servants a licence for the performance of every species of dramatic entertainment throughout England; and, in 1583, twelve of the principal actors were selected from the companies of various noblemen, and sworn her Majesty's servants, with an allowance of wages and liveries as grooms of the chamber: eight of them had an annual stipend of 81. 68. 8d. each.

The influence of the drama over the opinions and feelings of society was early discovered, and its importance acknowledged by the attention of government to its progress. As early as the reign of Henry VIII. there were legislative enactments upon the subject, royal proclamations, and orders of privy council were frequently promulgated, for the restraint of the licentiousness of the players, the interdiction of blasphemy on the stage, and the prohibition of performances at the public theatres on Sundays, in the season of Lent, and in times of common plague.

From the first entertainment of royal companies by English sovereigns, the actors were subject to the authority of the Lord Chamberlain, as general superintendent of the recreations of the court. Henry VIII., however, gave a predominant importance to masques, music, plays, and pageants, by the appointment of a special officer, called the Master of the Revels, for their superintendence. Elizabeth, ever anticipating danger, extended his jurisdiction; and in granting a licence to Burbage and others, in 1574, for the exhibition of plays of every, sort, they “being before secn and allowed by the Master of the Revels, she placed an effectual check on the bad purposes to which theatrical entertainments are convertible. Blasphemous and indecent words were erased, and doctrines, political or religious, inimical to the views or faith of the court, were altered or omitted by his directions: his command suspended the performance or closed the doors of the theatres; and both actors and authors were amenable to his authority, fór offences individually or collectively committed.

When Elizabeth granted her licence to Burbage, no idea appears to have been entertained of theatrical representations being incompatible with the duties of religion, restriction only being placed on performances during “the hours of prayer." Only four years afterwards the privy council forbad the acting of plays in Lent, and subsequently, on Sundays. It will not create surprise that little attention was paid to these mandates, and that successive endeavours were, in vain, made for their enforcement, when it is found, that masques and plays were constantly exhibited in the courts, and in the presence of Elizabeth and James, on Sundays, and days of religious festivity. The virtue of the Master of the Revels relaxed on the payment of a stipulated fee, and performances in Lent were only deemed profane when not exhibited under the protection of his special licenoe.

Though they were associated under the authority of royalty itself, and extensively patronised by the nobility, the theatrical companies of the sixteenth century laboured under difficulties which are now only to be met with amidst the poverty of the meanest strollers. Between the number of characters to be represented, and the corps of actors, a lamentable disproportion often existed, and the Protean qualities of the buskined hero were not uncommonly tasked by the assumption of two, and sometimes even three characters in the same play. Masques were occasionally resorted to for the concealment of such incongruities, as well as of an equally inherent defect in the constitution of the old theatrical companies, the entire absence of female performers; no woman appearing on the stage till after the restoration.

The actors on the old stage were divided into two classcs, sharers and hirelings. The shurer was remunerated by a proportion of the profits of the theatre, and an allowance of four, five, six shillings a week was given to his boy who

the stage.

played cither juvenile or female characters. The hireling was engaged at a weekIy salary, and his services sometimes secured, by special articles of agreement, to a particular theatre for two or three years. His stipend was naturally proportioned to his abilities: one notice occurs of the engagement of an actor at five shillings a week for one year, and six shillings and eightpence for the second.

And here I shall resume the biography of Shakspeare. It is improbable that hoever obtained more than six shillings and eightpence a week for his services on the stage. He was at first engaged in a very mcan capacity, and was so little distinguished afterwards for any extraordinary excellence as an actor, that the Ghost in his own Hamlet was considered his most successful effort 1). It was usual in old plays to mention the names of the actors, but not to distinguish the character which each player performed. The name of Shakspeare frequently occurs, but it is only further known that he was the representative of Adam in As You Like It 2). In the theory of the art of acting, Shakspeare was, however, perfectly skilled. The directions of Hamlet to the players are a keen censure upon the boisterous rant, and impertinent ignorance of his contemporaries, and an admirable epitome of general principles for the guidance of the actor. But deficient in those peculiarities of nature that are necessary to the formation of a first-rate performer, it was in vain that Shakspeare entertained the highest ideas of the perfection of which scenic personification is capable. His name was, to all appearance, on the point of sinking to oblivion, but a spirit burnt within him which not the chilling influence of poverty could repress, nor the degradation of his situation Jong obscure, and the actor of mediocrity aspired to distinction as a writer for

Among the dramas produced antecedently to 1590, there were many felicitous ideas, both of circumstance and passion which the half-formed tastes of their authors had imperfectly described. But as the love of theatricals became general, and the principles of dramatic composition better understood, the adaptation of the early plays to the more modern stage was a common practice. Encouraged by an easy acquisition of pecuniary reward, for no comparison existed between the task of revisal and the labour of original composition, authors of the highest talents did not disdain the employment. Decker, Rowley, Hayward, Jonson, and others, were frequently thus engaged in conferring value on the works of others, and to this ungrateful task the first efforts of Shakspeare were modestly confined. The second and third parts of Henry VI., (with the first part, Shakspeare had undoubtedly little, if any thing to do,) are vast improvements upon preceding dramatic productions by no means destitute of merit, and their success was such as to embolden the bard to risk a higher flight.

The utmost cfforts of industry, seconded by a prudence too seldom found among the votaries of the Muses, were barely adequate to the supply of nature's simplest wants. The price paid by the managers for a new play was twenty nobles, or 61. 13s. 4d., for which consideration the author surrendered all perty whatever in the piecc. If, as was sometimes the case, the play was not absolutely purchased by the theatre, the poet looked for remuneration from the profits of a third night's representation, the precarious produce of the sale of his play, when published, at sixpence a copy, and the hard-earned fee of forty shillings for an adulatory dedication to a patron. The sums given for the alteration of old plays varied extremely, and were, doubtless, regulated by the quantity of new matter furnished, and the success attendant upon the revival: as little as ten shillings was sometimes paid, and the highest remuneration was short of what was given for a new play: Dramatic writers were, therefore, generally poor: they were bound to theatrical managers either by favours past, existing debts, the perpetual dread of one day needing their assistance. Their wants often compelled them to solicit, nay, Their very existence appears sometimos to have de- • pended on, advances on thic cm-ıryo productions oi' ilieir brains, and the labours of to-day were devoted to cancel the obligation which the necessities of yester

pro

[ocr errors]

1) Rowe, Note M.

3) Oldys, Note N.

day had contracted. It is truly piliable to find the great Ben Jonson soliciting from Henslowe, the advance of a sum so paltry as “five shillings.

In 1592 Shakspeare was well known as a writer for the stage, but no point of the poet's history is involved in greater obscurity than the time of his commencing original dramatic author, and every attempt to connect with certainty so interesting a circumstance with any one of his numerous dramas has ended in disappointment. The Two Gentlemen of Verona and the Comedy of Errors have been pointed out, but others might, with equal propriety, have been selected.

The combination of the profession of a dramatic writer with the occupation of a player must have lightened the pecuniary difficulties of Shakspeare, but could afford him little prospect of emerging from the poverty in which alınost every writer for the stage was then involved. But if he reaped no great pecuniary advantage from his labours as an actor and anthor, yet in his latter character he advanced in worldly consideration. The actors, in his day, were both denominated and regarded as servants, and when the comedian's duty summoned him to attendance at the mansion of his noble patron, the buttery was the place to which he was admilted. But the society of dramatic writers was courted by the opulent; the nobility adopted them as acquaintances, and made them at once the objects of their bounty and esteem. And thus it happened to Shakspeare and the accomplished Lord Southampton. Sir Thomas Heminge, his Lordship’s father-in-law, was treasurer of the chambers to the Queen, and the rewarding of the actors at the court was part of his office. The theatre and actors, therefore, were almost necessarily forced upon the attention of the young nobleman, and the effect of the early impression is sufficiently marked at still later periods of Lord Southamplon’s life by his neglect of the court for a daily attendance at the theatre; his entertainment of Cecil with."plaięs”; and his causing the tragedy of Richard the Sccond to be acted, for the double purpose of sedition and of amuscment, on the night previous to Essex's rebellion 1). At the theatre, then, commenced that connection between himself and Shakspeare which is first intimated by the poet's dedication to his Lordship of the poem of Venus and Adonis, in 1593, when Lord Southampton was just twenty years of age. Their mulual satisfaction was testified, and their growing friendship cemented, by Shakspeare's repetition of the compliment on the publication of the Rape of Lucrece in 1594.

It is reported of Lord Southampton that he at one time gave to Shakspeare a thousand pounds to enable him to complete'a purchase 2); and the assertion is strongly corroborated by the opulence in which Shakspeare is found a very few years after his arrival in London,-an opulence far too considerable to have accrued from his emoluments of actor and writer for the stage. Some of his plays could only have entitled him to the smaller recompence paid for the alteration of an old drama. His original pieces were sold absolutely to the theatre: the gain upon them, therefore, is ascertainable with tolerable precision, as he neither derived advantage from their publication nor from their dedication to the opulent 3).

In 1567, Shakspeare bought New Place, one of the best houses in his native town, which he repaired and adorned. In the following year, apparently as a man of known properly, he was applied to by a brother townsman for the loan of thirty pounds 4); and, about the same time, he expressed himself as not unwilling to advance, on adequate security, money for the use of the town of Stratford 5). The poet's still increasing wealth is marked by a continuation of his pur

1) Letter from Sir Rowland Whyte to Sir Robert Sidney in the Sidney papers, and Lord Baa con's works.

2) Rowe, on the authority of Davenant.

3) Fourteen plays of Shakspeare were printed during his lifetime, but without advantage to him, as they were surreptitious publications, alike fraudulent on him, on the managers of the Globe, and on the public.

4) Letter from Richard Quyney to Shakspeare.
5) Two letters from Abm. Sturley of Stratford.

« ZurückWeiter »