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of Charlecote, in the neighbourhood of Stratford. The opinions of the injurer and the injured, in a case of this sort, were not very likely to accord; and it, therefore, excites no surprise that, on detection, Shakspeare imagined himself too harshly treated. In revenge, he affixed a scurrilous ballad to the gate of the owner of the stolen deer 1). One stanza of the offensive pasquinade has descended in connection with the story of its author's indiscretion:
We allowe by his ears but with asses to mate.
This aggravation of injury by insult was productive of the very natural consequence of increased severity on the part of Sir Thomas Lucy, and proceedings were urged so far against the youthful offender, as to induce him to fly from the place of his nativity, the scat of his business and the bosom of his family 3). The date of his departure is uncertain. It might have been previous to 1585, though his twin children were baptized at Stratford in the February of that year; and it might, with, perhaps, greater probability, be assigned to a subsequent period.
The inhabitants of Stratford were great lovers of theatrical amusements. No less than four-and-twenty visitations were made them by companies of comedians between 1569, when Shakspeare was five years old, and 1587. The names of Burbage and Green occur, both in the London companies of actors and in the lists of the townsmen of Stratford 4). From his earliest childhood, therefore, to his advancement into manhood, the attention of Shakspeare was directed to the stage, by frequently recurring attraction, and in all probability, by an acquaintance and association with comedians. When a change of life became unavoidable, it is natural to suppose that he yielded to the predilection of his youth. His fugitive steps were directed to London: he there embraced the occupation of a player, and, subsequently, of a writer for the stage 5).
Shakspeare's arrival in the metropolis is an era in the history of the theatre, and I shall therefore trace the national drama from its birth, through its slow and sickly growth, to the time of which I am writing. A natural curiosity will be similarly gratified by the collection and arrangement of the scattered and various information we possess relative to the theatres and theatrical usages of Shakspeare's time; for who can be indifferent respecting the circumstances under which his works were first introduced, and exhibited, upon the stage 6)?
Mysteries, or miracle-plays, were mostly founded on the characters and events of sacred writ, or on the superstitions with which the fair form of religion was surrounded. On the personification of the Deity, of Christ, and the Holy Ghost; and on the representation on the stage of the Incarnation, the Passion, the Resurrection, and Ascension, not a syllable need be said; nor is the appearance of Adam and Eve, in one scene, naked and not ashamed, and in the next covered with fig leaves, exactly a topic for criticism. The Devil was a particular favourite with the audience; usually displaying horns, a very wide mouth, large eyes and nose, a flame-coloured beard, a cloven foot, and a tail. A nimble personage, called the Vice, was his constant companion, whose wit consisted in jumping on the devil's back, and in the buffoonery of chastising him with a wooden sword, till his satanic majesty bellowed lustily under the infliction. The altercation of
2) Jones of Tarbick,-related by Oldys and Capell. The ballad has, at last, been discovered entire; but unaccompanied by any allusion to the occasion of its composition. The lines in the text are printed as two stanzas in the entire ballad.
"He thinks himself greate, yet an asse in his state," forming the first line of the second stanza.
Noah and his wife in the Deluge, is a specimen of the treatment of sacred subjects, when converted into mysteries. "Welcome, wife, into this boat," is the polite salutation of the attentive husband on handing his lady into the ark; "Take thou that for thy note," with the dutiful accompaniment of a box on the ear, is the eloquent rejoinder of the mother of the modern world. These productions, wretched and impious as they seem to us, were deemed serviceable to the interests of religion. Festivals and saints' days were selected for their performance; a pardon of one thousand days was awarded by the Pope, and forty additional days by the bishop of the diocese, to all who resorted in Whitsun week to the representation of the series of mysteries at Chester, "beginning with the Creation and fall of Lucifer, and ending with the general judgment of the world.” Monasteries, abbeys, and churches, were the usual places of their exhibition, and, for some time, the clergy themselves the only performers; but, by degrees, many of the parts fell into the hands of the scholars and choir-boys, attached to the monastic establishments, and on them the entire performance ultimately devolved, the clergy being prohibited, by an injunction from the Mexican council, ratified at Rome in 1589, from ever playing in mysteries again. The parish-clerks of London availed themselves of their ability to read, and performed spiritual plays at Skinner's Well, for three days successively, before Richard the Second, his queen, and the
nobles of the realm.
The popularity of miracle-plays and mysteries continued through four centuries. Early in 1500 their performance was, however, more occasional than heretofore. The Chester mysteries were revived for the last time in 1574, and the exhibition, in the reign of James the First, of Christ's Passion, on Good Friday, was the final degradation which subjects so solemn experienced on the stage. The first departure in mysteries from the literal representation of scriptural and legendary stories, was the introduction of allegorical characters as auxiliary to the main design. Some attention was then bestowed on plot, description of manners, and discrimination of character. Sin, death, faith, hope, charity, and the leading passions or vices of mankind, personified, at length became the principal agents, and dramas so constructed were called moralities, in contradistinction to mysteries. Moralities made their appearance about the middle of the fifteenth century, from which time they divided popularity pretty equally with mysteries, till the improved understanding of the audience drove both from the stage.
Mysteries naturally paved the way for the adoption of historical or romantie tales, as the subject of a drama; and from moralities, wherein the characters were allegorical, and the plot fanciful, the transition was easy to entertainments of nearer approach to the regular play.
The custom of exhibiting pageants on great public occasions, in honour, and for the recreation, of royalty, powerfully aided the introduction of the drama. Appropriately habited, historical and allegorical characters represented stories in dumb-shew on temporary moveable stages in the streets. In the reign of Henry the Sixth, dialogue and set speeches in verse were added. Hence may be deduced those most incongruous productions, masques; hence ideas were derived of the introduction of profane characters on the stage, and the mixture, subsequently met with, of pantomime and dialogue in the same play, and the allegorical representation in dumb shew of the matter of the scenes which followed.
It is to the universities, inns of court, and public seminaries, however, that we are indebted for the first regular dramas which our language boasts. The scholars of these establishments assiduously engaged in free translations of the classical models of antiquity, and in the composition and performance of plays constructed on their model. The earliest tragedy, Gorbodue, or Ferrex and Porrex, the joint effort of Sackville Lord Buckhurst, and Thomas Norton, was performed at the Inner Temple in 1561-2; and the first comedy, Gammar Gurton's Needle, a juvenile production of Bishop Still, was acted at Christ's Church, Cambridge, in 1566..
There is a general similarity between all the plays that preceded Shakspeare's dramatic efforts. Their authors had no notion of a plot comprehending one great design, nor of a plot consisting of several actions emanating from the same
source, or combining for the promotion of the same end, consistent with, though varying from, each other. They either ran into the error of framing their story with such bald simplicity, that it was scarcely worthy the name of story at all, or they placed in the same play two, or more, stories unconnected by one single link. Incidents are either made the subject of long and tedious conference, or they follow each other in such quick succession, that actions and their results, which a lapse of time only could produce, stand in immediate contact, so that the passing scene wears the appearance of arbitrary arrangement, rather than of a natural progress of events. One of two faults generally marks the concluding act. The denouement is delayed, after the result is obvious, and all interest in it has evaporated, or, the main story being finished, the author's ingenuity is put to the rack to eke out his scene to its prescribed extent, with whatever extraneous circumstances he could graft upon it.
The chorus very commonly formed a portion of the earlier English plays, sometimes taking a part in the performance, sometimes supplying the deficiencies of the action by narrative or explanation, and sometimes performing the office of a moral commentator on the passing events. A more incongruous accompaniment was the cumbrous machinery of the dumb-shew which preceded the several acts, prefiguring their contents by allegorical and pantomimic exhibition. Into such extensive use was this mute mimickry sometimes stretched, that it was made to cover the want of business in the play; and where an author was extremely fastidious, and attentive to probability, it was used to fill up the interval that was necessary to pass, while a hero was expected from the holy land, or a princess imported, married, or brought to bed.
Prose, rhyme, and blank-verse, were indifferently the mental vehicles of the early dramatists: occasionally plays were composed in one or other of them entirely; the mixture of two was very frequent, and instances of the presence of all three in the same play were by no means common.
That our early dramatists were well acquainted with the laws which antiquity prescribed for the regulation of the drama, is a circumstance that admits not of question, for they were all scholars. Their neglect of the unities, therefore, and other proprieties, more essential, and of much easier observance, was wilful, and they had, apparently, no hesitation in committing to paper all the suggestions of their imaginations: hence the occurrences of many years are crowded into five acts; in a single play the scene is often shifted to different quarters of the globe; hence the mixture of characters of different countries; and while the scene is laid in Greece or Rome, the customs, manners, sentiments, and allusions proclaim all the personages to be English. In short, their anachronisms and anomalies are without end.
The leading characteristic of the early English tragedy, in which the ancients were not imitated, was exaggeration. The plot generally embodied some circumstance of extraordinary horror or wickedness, and all its accompaniments were attuned to a turgid and unnatural pitch. Situations such as could scarcely be produced by any possibility were diligently sought after; passions were overstrained till no distinction remained between what was intended for their expression and the ravings of lunacy; language was inflated till it lost its connection with sense; and metaphors the most unlicensed, and conceits of thought and expression the most fanciful, were used with the utmost freedom. It was impossible that the heart could speak from beneath so cumbrous a load of folly and absurdity: attempts were indeed made to imitate the voice of nature, but rarely with such success as to be productive of even a momentary delusion.
We turn to comedy, but meet with no superior gratification: much greater diversity of scene and incident she certainly exhibits, but she entails even greater evils on her reader than those already enumerated. Low buffoonery, horrible obscenity, petty conceits, quibbles, puns, cross purposed questions and replies, and, in short, every variety of rhodomontade was produced, and accepted as substitutes for wit. The most prominent characters in the old comedies were waiters, pages, servants, and other personages of the same humble description: the meanness of their rank may be urged as some excuse for their vulgarity.
The union of serious and comic business in the same play was very common from the first dawnings of dramatic literature in England. The Vice and the Devil obtruded their impertinent buffoonery on scenes of the most serious and solemn import, and the audiences, who witnessed such absurdity with delight, may well be supposed incapable of relishing performances of pure and simple beauty. The grossness of their taste was administered to by a clown who thrusts himself upon the scene, on all occasions, to vent the ebullitions of his folly or his wit. He was privileged to notice what was passing in the audience part of the theatre, to enter into familiar conversation with the spectators, either between the acts or in the midst of the business of the scene. But there was a particular expectation that the clown should exhibit his talents at the conclusion of a play in an entertainment called a jig, in which he danced, sung, and chanted metrical nonsense, to the accompaniment of a pipe and tabor.
It would be unjust to associate the name of Marlow with those of Green, Lodge, Peele, Nash, Lily and Kyd, the principal authors during the earliest age of the English drama.
Marlow's first undoubted play was produced in 1590, and he died in 1593. His appearance, therefore, was contemporaneous with that of Shakspeare, from whom he borrowed nothing. His own vigorous understanding taught him to despise, and he had the courage to discard, the puerility and diffusion, and, in a great measure, the low buffoonery and vulgar witticisms also, that disgraced the works of his predecessors. His conceptions were striking and original, his intellect grasped his subject as a whole, and bending every faculty of his mind to the topic immediately before him, he never shrunk from the expression of his boldest thoughts. Sublimity is Marlow's perpetual aim, and to his over strenuous efforts for its attainment, and his indistinct notions of the difference between sublimity and horror, his most glaring faults are attributable. He heaps crime on crime, and one disgusting incident upon another, till a mass of deformity is accumulated which both nature and probability disclaim. The richest success is often, however, the reward of his noble daring, and his dramas exhibit many scenes both of deep pathos and true sublimity, Marlow's language harmonises exactly with his thoughts. Its characteristics are depth, clearness, and strength, but, partaking of the over-grown boldness of his designs, it is distorted by far-fetched images, forced comparisons, and turgid and bombastic phrases. Marlow's greatest misfortune was want of taste. The arrangement of his scenes is generally bad, the incidents are awkwardly and coarsely introduced, and the whole plot so loosely hung together, that he might literally join with Polonius in asserting, that he used "no art at all."
While the subjects of dramatic entertainments were sacred, and the stage accessary to the views of the priesthood, churches and chapels, and their immediate vicinities, were deemed perfectly appropriate for dramatic exhibition. But as mysteries yielded to profane subjects, and lessons of instruction, in the shape of moralities, gave way to scenes of mere amusement, the profanation of sacred edifices loudly protested against, and, by degrees, entirely disused. When scholars and singing boys succeeded the clergy as the principal performers, schoolrooms, halls in the universities and inns of court, the mansions of the nobility, and the palaces of royalty, became the theatres of exhibition. To a late period, indeed, of the reign of Elizabeth, the regularly licensed comedians occasionally performed in churches and chapels; but with this exception, and the further one of companies being called upon to afford entertainment to their sovereign, or immediate patron, the scenes of their theatrical glories were temporary erections in the court-yards of inns: the stage occupied one side of the quadrangle; the centre area, and the balconies on the three remaining sides, afforded ample accommodation for the audience.
The first building in England dedicated exclusively to the purposes of the drama, emphatically termed the theatre, was erected about 1570 in Blackfriars, near the present Apothecaries' Hall. The number of theatres rapidly increased: a playhouse in Whitefriars, in, or near, Salisbury Court, and another called the Curtain in Shoreditch, were raised previous to 1580; and, subsequently, the
Globe, on Bankside: the Red Bull, at the upper end of St. John's Street; the Fortune, in Whitecross Street; and the Cockpit or Phoenix, in Drury Lane. There were, besides, other theatres of minor importance: the Swan, the Rose, and the Hope. Each theatre, it is believed, was distinguished by a sign indicative of its name; that on the Globe was a figure of Hercules supporting the globe, underwritten was the motto, Totus mundus agit histrionem 1). The roof of the Globe, and of the other public theatres, was surmounted by a pole which displayed a flag during the period of performance. The playhouses were never all open at the same time, some of them being summer, others winter theatres. The roofs of summer theatres extended only over the stage, passages, and galleries; the area of the pit was therefore open to the weather: the winter houses were completely covered in, and consequently their performances took place by candle light. Such were the Theatre, the playhouse in Whitefriars and the Cockpit; they were also smaller than the other theatres, and for some reason now unknown, called private theatres. The illumination of the body of the house was effected by cressels, or large open lantherns, and, occasionally, if it be possible to credit the circumstance, wax lights were used: the stage was lighted by two large branches similar to those that are hung in churches.
The form of the English theatres was derived from those buildings which experience had proved to be well adapted to the purposes of the drama. Like the court-yard of an inn, three sides were occupied by balconies; these, properly divided, were appropriated to the reception of different classes of company: the fourth side formed the stage; and the centre area the pit, which, unlike the same place in modern English theatres, was without benches. The common people, who resorted thither, stood to witness the exhibition, and hence are called groundlings by Shakspeare, and, by Ben Jonson, the understanding gentlemen of the ground. Between this class of spectators, and the occupiers of the upper balconies, or scaffolds, there was no distinction in rank, both being of the lowest and most disreputable description. The lower balconies, or rooms, which answered to our boxes, were frequented by company of rank. The "lords' rooms" are often mentioned by the old dramatists, and appear to have been next the stage.
Independently of the regular rooms, there were, in some of the theatres, private boxes, but their situation is not ascertained with precision. Occasionally, also, the public rooms were appropriated to individuals, under the security of a lock and key. An upper balcony, over what is now called the stage box, constituted the orchestra.
The stage was separated from the audience part of the house by palings, and, previous to the commencement of the performance, was concealed by a curtain, which, divided in the middle, could be drawn from the centre to the sides: its materials varied, with the opulence of the theatre, from woollen to silk. Like the floors of private houses in the Elizabethan age, the stage was usually strewed with rushes, but on occasions of extraordinary ceremony it was covered with matting. At the back of the stage there was a balcony, or upper stage, on which the characters entered who were required to appear in clevated situations, such as Juliet in the balcony; and Romeo and Juliet aloft 2). When not in use for the purposes of the scene, the balcony stage was concealed by a curtain. Where a play was exhibited within a play, the balcony was made use of either for the audience before whom the representation was to be made, or as a stage for the performance of the auxiliary play. Shakspeare himself furnishes an instance of each practice. Sly would sit in the balcony to witness the Taming of the Shrew; and the mock play in Hamlet was certainly acted on the upper stage.
The presence of scenery in the booths and temporary erections in inn yards, where the first companies of comedians exhibited, is not to be supposed; and the evidence collected on the subject, for the most part, goes to prove, that the first regular theatres were nearly as destitute of scenic decoration as their beggarly pre
1) Note K.
2) Act 3. sc. 5. "Aloft" is the stage direction of the second quarto.