Essay on the Origin of the English Stage, Etc.
Our great dramatic poet having occasionally quoted many ancient ballads, and even taken the plot of one, if not more, of his plays from among them, it was judged proper to preserve as many of these as could be recovered, and, that they might he the more easily found, to exhibit them in one collective view.
This SECOND BOOK is therefore set apart for the reception of such ballads as are quoted by Shakspeare, or contribute in any degree to illustrate his writings: this being the principal point in view, the candid reader will pardon the admission of some pieces that have no other kind of merit.
The design of this book being of a dramatic tendency, it may not be improperly introduced with a few observations on the origin of the English Stage, and on the conduct of our first dramatic poets: a subject which, though not unsuccessfully handled by several good writers already,[ 1] will yet perhaps admit of some further illustration.
It is well known that dramatic poetry in this and most other nations of Europe owes its origin, or at least its revival, to those religious shows, which in the dark ages were usually exhibited on the more solemn festivals. At those times they were wont to represent in the churches the lives and miracles of the saints, or some of the more important stories of Scripture. And as the most mysterious subjects were frequently chosen, such as the Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection of Christ, &c. these exhibitions acquired the general name of MYSTERIES. At first they were probably a kind of dumb shows, intermingled, it may be, with a few short speeches; at length they grew into a regular series of connected dialogues, formally divided into acts and scenes. Specimens of these in their most improved state (being at best but poor artless compositions) may be seen among Dodsley's Old Plays and in Osborne's Harleyan Miscel. How they were exhibited in their most simple form, we may learn from an ancient novel, often quoted by our old dramatic poets,[ 2] entitled . . . a merry jest of a man that was called Howleglass[ 3] &c. being a translation from the Dutch language, in which he is named Ulenspiegle. Howleglass, whose waggish tricks are the subject of this book, after many adventures comes to live with a priest, who makes him his parish-clerk. This priest is described as keeping a leman or concubine, who had but one eye, to whom Howleglas owed a grudge for revealing his rogueries to his master. The story thus proceeds, . . . "And than in the meane season, while Howleglas was parysh clarke, at Easter they should play the Resurrection of our Lorde: and for because than the men wer not learned, nor could not read, the priest toke his leman, and put her in the grave for an Aungell; and this seing Howleglas, toke to hym iij of the symplest persons that were in the towne, that played the iij Maries; and the Person [i.e. Parson or Rector] played Christe, with a baner in his hand. Than saide Howleglas to the symple persons, Whan the Aungel asketh you, whome you seke, you may saye, The parsons leman with one iye. Than it fortuned that the tyme was come that they must playe, and the Aungel asked them whom they sought, and than sayd they, as Howleglas had shewed and lerned them afore, and than answered they, We seke the priests leman with one iye. And than the prieste might heare that he was mocked. And whan the priestes leman heard that, she arose out of the grave, and would have smyten with her fist Howleglas upon the cheke, but she missed him and smote one of the simple persons that played one of the thre Maries; and he gave her another; and than toke she him by the heare [hair]; and that seing his wyfe, came running hastely to smite the priestes leaman; and than the priest seeing this, caste down hys baner and went to helpe his woman, so that the one gave the other sore strokes, and made great noyse in the churche. And than Howleglas seyng them lyinge together by the eares in the bodi of the churche, went his way out of the village, and came no more there."[ 4]
As the old Mysteries frequently required the representation of some allegorical personage, such as Death, Sin, Charity, Faith, and the like, by degrees the rude poets of those unlettered ages began to form complete dramatic pieces consisting entirely of such personifications. These they entitled Moral Plays, or Moralities. The Mysteries were very inartificial, representing the Scripture stories simply according to the letter. But the Moralities are not devoid of invention; they exhibit outlines of the dramatic art: they contain something of a fable or plot, and even attempt to delineate characters and manners. I have now before me two that were printed early in the reign of Henry VIII.; in which I think one may plainly discover the seeds of Tragedy and Comedy; for which reason I shall give a short analysis of them both.
One of them is entitled Every-Man.[ 5] The subject of this piece is the summoning of man out of the world by death; and its moral, that nothing will then avail him but a well-spent life and the comforts of religion. This subject and moral are opened in a monologue spoken by the Messenger (for that was the name generally given by our ancestors to the Prologue on their rude stage); then God[ 6] is represented; who, after some general complaints on the degeneracy of mankind, calls for Deth, and orders him to bring before his tribunal Every-man, for so is called the personage who represents the human race. Every-man appears, and receives the summons with all the marks of confusion and terror. When Death is withdrawn, Every-man applies for relief in this distress to Fellowship, Kindred, Goods, or Riches, but they successively renounce and forsake him. In this disconsolate state he betakes himself to Good-dedes, who, after upbraiding him with his long neglect of her,[ 7] introduces him to her sister Knowledge, and she reads him to the "holy man Confession," who appoints him penance: this he inflicts upon himself on the stage, and then withdraws to receive the sacraments of the priest. On his return he begins to wax faint, and after Strength, Beauty, Discretion, and Five Wits[ 8] have all taken their final leave of him, gradually expires on the stage; Good-dedes still accompanying to the last. Then an Aungell descends to sing his Requiem; and the Epilogue is spoken by a person called Doctour, who recapitulates the whole, and delivers the moral:
"C. This memoriall men may have in mynde,
Ye herers, take it of worth old and youge,
And forsake Pryde, for he disceyveth you in thende,
And remembre Beaute, Five Witts, Strength and Discretion,
They all at last do Every-man forsake;
Save his Good Dedes there dothe he take;
But beware, for and they be small,
Before God he hath no helpe at all, &c."
From this short analysis it may be observed, that Every Man is a grave solemn piece, not without some rude attempts to excite terror and pity, and therefore may not improperly be referred to the class of Tragedy. It is remarkable that in this old simple drama the fable is conducted upon the strictest model of the Greek Tragedy. The action is simply one, the time of action is that of the performance, the scene is never changed, nor the stage ever empty. Every-man, the hero of the piece, after his first appearance never withdraws, except when he goes out to receive the sacraments, which could not well be exhibited in public; and during his absence Knowledge descants on the excellence and power of the priesthood, somewhat after the manner of the Greek chorus. And indeed, except in the circumstance of Every-man's expiring on the stage, the "Sampson Agonistes" of Milton is hardly formed on a severer plan.[ 9]
The other play is entitled Hick-scorner[ 10], and bears no distant resemblance to Comedy: its chief aim seems to be to exhibit characters and manners, its plot being much less regular than the foregoing. The Prologue is spoken by Pity represented under the character of an aged pilgrim; he is joined by Contemplacyon and Perseverance, two holy men, who, after lamenting the degeneracy of the age, declare their resolution of stemming the torrent. Pity then is left upon the stage, and presently found by Frewyll, representing a lewd debauchee, who, with his dissolute companion Imaginacion, relate their manner of life, and not without humour describe the stews and other places of base resort. They are presently joined by Hick-Scorner, who is drawn as a libertine returned from travel, and, agreeably to his name, scoffs at religion. These three are described as extremely vicious, who glory in every act of wickedness: at length two of them quarrel, and Pity endeavours to part the fray; on this they fall upon him, put him in the stocks, and there leave him. Pity, thus imprisoned, descants in a kind of lyric measure on the profligacy of the age, and in this situation is found by Perseverance and Contemplacion, who set him at liberty, and advise him to go in search of the delinquents. As soon as he is gone, Frewyll appears again; and, after relating in a very comic manner some of his rogueries and escapes from justice, is rebuked by the two holy men, who, after a long altercation, at length convert him and his libertine companion Imaginacioun from their vicious course of life: and then the play ends with a few verses from Perseverance by way of Epilogue. This and every Morality I have seen conclude with a solemn prayer. They are all of them in rhyme; in a kind of loose stanza, intermixed with distichs.
It would be needless to point out the absurdities in the plan and conduct of the foregoing play: they are evidently great. It is sufficient to observe, that, bating the moral and religious reflection of Pity, &c. the piece is of a comic cast, and contains a humorous display of some of the vices of the age. Indeed the author has generally been so little attentive to the allegory, that we need only substitute other names to his personages, and we have real characters and living manners.
We see then that the writers of these Moralities were upon the very threshold of real Tragedy and Comedy; and therefore we are not to wonder that Tragedies and Comedies in form soon after took place, especially as the revival of Iearning about this time brought them acquainted with the Roman and Grecian models.
II. At what period of time the Moralities had their rise here, it is difficult to discover. But Plays of Miracles appear to have been exhibited in England soon after the Conquest. Matthew Paris tells us that Geoffrey, afterwards Abbot of St. Albans, a Norman, who had been sent for over by Abbot Richard to take upon him the direction of the school of that monastery, coming too late, went to Dunstable, and taught in the abbey there; where he caused to be acted (probably by his scholars) a MIRACLE-PLAY OF ST. CATHARINE, composed by himself.[ 11] This was long before the year 1119, and probably within the 11th century. The above play of St. Catharine was, for aught that appears, the first spectacle of this sort that was exhibited in these kingdoms: and an eminent French writer thinks it was even the first attempt towards the revival of dramatic entertainments in all Europe: being long before the representations of Mysteries in France; for these did not begin till the year 1398.[ 12]
But whether they derived their origin from the above exhibition or not, it is certain that Holy Plays, representing the miracles and sufferings of the Saints, were become common in the reign of Henry II.; and a lighter sort of interludes appear not to have been then unknown.[ 13] In the subsequent age of Chaucer, "Plays of Miracles" in Lent were the common resort of idle gossips.[ 14]
They do not appear to have been so prevalent on the continent, for the learned historian of the Council of Constance[ 15] ascribes to the English the introduction of plays into Germany. He tells us that the Emperor, having been absent from the council for some time, was at his return received with great rejoicings, and that the English Fathers in particular did, upon that occasion, cause a sacred Comedy to be acted before him on Sunday January 31st, 1417; the subjects of which were: THE NATIVITY OF OUR SAVIOUR; THE ARRIVAL OF THE EASTERN MAGI; and THE MASSACRE BY HEROD. Thence it appears, says this writer, that the Germans are obliged to the English for the invention of this sort of spectacles, unknown to them before that period.
The fondness of our ancestors for dramatic exhibitions of this kind, and some curious particulars relating to this subject, will appear from the Houshold Book of the fifth Earl of Northumberland, A.D. 1512,[ 16] whence I shall select a few extracts, which show that the exhibiting Scripture dramas on the great festivals entered into the regular establishment, and formed part of the domestic regulations of our ancient nobility; and, what is more remarkable, that it was as much the business of the Chaplain in those days to compose Plays for the family, as it is now for him to make Sermons.
"MY lordes Chapleyns in Households vj. viz. The Almonar, and if he be a maker of INTERLUDYS, than he to have a servaunt to the intent for writynge of the PARTS; and ells to have non. The maister of gramer," &c.-- Sect. V. p. 44.
"Item, my lorde usith and accustomyth to gyf yerely if is lordship kepe a chapell and be at home, them of his lordschipes chapell, if they doo play the Play of the Nativite uppon Cristynmes day in the mornnynge in my lords chapell befor his lordship -- xxs."-- Sect. XLIV. p. 343.
"Item, . . . to them of his lordship chappell and other his lordshipis servaunts that doith play the Play befor his lordship uppon SHROF-TEWSDAY at night yerely in reward -- xs." Sect. XLIV. p. 345.
"Item, . . . to them . . . that playth the Play of resurrection upon estur day in the mornynge in my lordis 'chapell' befor his lordshipe -- xxs."-- Ibid.
"Item, My lorde useth and accustomyth yerly to gyf hym which is ordynede to be the MASTER OF THE REVELLS yerly in my lordis hous in cristmas for the overseyinge and orderinge of his lordschips Playes, Interludes and Dresinge that is plaid befor his lordship in his hous in the xijth dayes of Cristenmas and they to have in rewarde for that caul yerly -- xxs."-- Ibid. p. 346.
"Item, My lorde useth and accustomyth to gyf every of the iiij Parsones that his lordschip admyted as his PLAYERS to com to his lordship yerly at Cristynmes ande at all other such tymes as his lordship shall comande them for playing of Playe and Interludes affor his lordship in his lordshipis hous for every of their fees for an hole yere"-- Ibid. p. 351.
"Item, to be payd . . . for rewards to Players for Playes playd at Christynmas by Stranegeres in my house after xxd.[ 17] every play, by estimacion somme -- xxxiijs. iiijd.[ 18] -- Sect. I. p. 22.
"Item, My lorde usith, and accustometh to gif yerely when his lord-shipp is at home, to every Erlis Players that comes to his Lordshipe betwixt Cristynmas ande Candelmas, if he be his special lorde & frende & kinsman -- xxs."-- Sect. xliv. p. 340.
"Item, My lorde usith and accustomyth to gyf yerely, when his lordship is at home to every Lordis Players, that comyth to his lordshipe betwixt Crystynmas and Candilmas -- xs."-- Ibid.
The Reader will observe the great difference in the rewards here given to such Players as were retainers of noble personages, and such as are styled Strangers, or as we may suppose, only Strollers.
The profession of a Common Player was about this time held by some in low estimation. In an old satire, entitled Cock Lorreles Bote,[ 19] the Author enumerating the most common trades or callings, as carpenters, coopers, joyners, &c. mentions
"Players, purse-cutters, money-batterers,
Golde-washers, tomblers, jogelers
Pardoners, &c."-- Sign. B. vj.
III. It hath been observed already, that Plays of Miracles, or Mysteries, as they were called, led to the introduction of Moral Plays, or Moralities, which prevailed so early, and became so common, that, towards the latter end of K. Henry VIIth's reign, John Rastel, brother-in-law to Sir Thomas More, conceived a design of making them the vehicle of science and natural philosophy. With this view he published 'C. A new interlude and a mery of the nature of the iiii elements declaring many proper points of philosopy natural, and of of divers strange laundes',&c.[ 20].
It is observable that the poet speaks of the discovery of America as then recent;
"Within this xx yere
Westwarde be founde new landys
That we never harde tell of before this," &c.
The West Indies were discovered by Columbus in 1492, which fixes the writing of this play to about 1510 (two years before the date of the above Houshold Book). The play of Hick-Scorner was probably somewhat more ancient, as he still more imperfectly alludes to the American discoveries, under the name of "the Newe founde Ilonde." Sign. A. vii.
It is observable that in the older Moralities, as in that last mentioned, Every-man, &c., is printed no kind of stage directions for the exit and entrances of the personages, no division of acts and scenes. But in the moral interlude of Lusty Juventus,[ 21] written under Edward VI. the exits and entrances begin to be noted in the margin:[ 22] at length in Q. Elizabeth's reign Moralities appeared formally divided into acts and scenes, with a regular prologue, &c. One of these is reprinted by Dodsley.
Before we quit this subject of the very early printed plays, it may just be observed, that, although so few are now extant, it should seem many were printed before the reign of Q. Elizabeth, as at the beginning of her reign, her INJUNCTIONS in 1559 are particularly directed to the suppressing of "many Pamphlets, PLAYES, and Ballads; that no manner of person shall enterprize to print any such, &c." but under certain restrictions. Vid. Sect. V.
In the time of Henry VIII. one or two dramatic pieces had been published under the classical names of Comedy and Tragedy,[ 23] but they appear not to have been intended for popular use: it was not till the religious ferments had subsided that the public had leisure to attend to dramatic poetry. In the reign of Elizabeth, Tragedies and Comedies began to appear in form, and, could the poets have persevered, the first models were good. Gorboduc, a regular Tragedy, was acted in 1561;[ 24] and Gascoigne, in 1566, exhibited Jocasta, a translation from Euripides, as also The Supposes, a regular Comedy, from Ariosto: near thirty years before any of Shakspeare's were printed.
The people however still retained a relish for their old Mysteries and Moralites,[ 25] and the popular dramatic poets seem to have made them their models. From the graver sort of Moralities our modern Tragedy appears to have derived its origin; as our Comedy evidently took its rise from the lighter interludes of that kind. And as most of these pieces contain an absurd mixture of religion and buffoonery, an eminent critic[ 26] has well deduced from thence the origin of our unnatural Tragi-comedies. Even after the people had been accustomed to Tragedies and Comedies, Moralities still kept their ground: one of them entitled The New Custom[ 27] was printed so late as 1573: at length they assumed the name of Masques,[ 28] and, with some classical improvements, became in the two following reigns the favourite entertainments of the court.
IV. The old Mysteries, which ceased to be acted after the reformation, appear to have given birth to a Third Species of Stage exhibition, which, though now confounded with Tragedy and Comedy, were by our first dramatic writers considered as quite distinct from them both: these were Historical Plays, or Histories, a species of dramatic writing, which resembled the old Mysteries in representing a series of Historical events simply in the order of time in which they happened, without any regard to the three great unities. These pieces seem to differ from Tragedies, just as much as Historical poems do from Epic: as the Pharsalia does from the Ćneid.
What might contribute to make dramatic poetry take this form was, that soon after the Mysteries ceased to be exhibited, was published a large collection of poetical narratives, called The Mirrour for Magistrates,[ 29] wherein a great number of the most eminent characters in English history are drawn relating their own misfortunes. This book was popular, and of a dramatic cast; and therefore, as an elegant writer[ 30] has well observed, might have its influence in producing Historical Plays. These narratives probably furnished the subjects, and the ancient Mysteries suggested the plan.
There appears indeed to have been one instance of an attempt at an HISTORICAL PLAY itself, which was perhaps as early as any Mystery on a religious subject; for such I think, we may pronounce the representation of a memorable event in English History, that was EXPRESSED IN ACTIONS AND RHYMES. This was the old Coventry Play of Hock Tuesday,[ 31] founded on the story of the Massacre of the Danes; as it happened on St. Brice's night, November 13, 1002.[ 32] The play in question was performed by certain men of Coventry, among the other shows and entertainments at Kenelworth Castle, in July 1575, prepared for Queen Elizabeth, and this the rather "because the matter mentioneth how valiantly our English Women, for the love of their country, behaved themselves."
The writer, whose words are here quoted,[ 33] hath given a short description of the performance; which seems on that occasion to have been without Recitation or Rhymes, and reduced to mere dumb-show; consisting of violent skirmishes and encounters, first between Danish and English "lance-knights on horseback," armed with spear and shield; and afterwards between "hosts" of footmen: which at length ended in the Danes being "beaten down, overcome, and many led captive by our English women."[ 34]
This play, it seems, which was wont to be exhibited in their city yearly, and which had been of great antiquity and long continuance there,[ 35] had of late been suppressed, at the instance of some well-meaning but precise preachers, of whose "sourness" herein the townsmen complain; urging that their play was "without example of ill-manners, papistry, or any superstition;"[ 36] which shows it to have been entirely distinct from a religious Mystery. But having been discontinued, and, as appears from the narrative, taken up of a sudden after the sports were begun, the Players apparently had not been able to recover the old Rhymes. or to procure new ones, to accompany the action; which, if it originally represented "the outrage and importable insolency of the Danes, the grievous complaint of Huna, king Ethelred's chieftain in wars;"[ 37] his counselling and contriving the plot to dispatch them; concluding with the conflicts above mentioned, and their final suppression "expressed in Actions and Rhimes after their manner,"[ 38] one can hardly conceive a more regular model of a complete drama; and, if taken up soon after the event, it must have been the earliest of the kind in Europe.[ 39]
Whatever this old play, or "storial show,"[ 40] was at the time it was exhibited to Q. Elizabeth, it had probably our young Shakspeare for a spectator, who was then in his twelfth year, and doubtless attended with all the inhabitants of the surrounding country at these "Princely pleasures of Kenelworth,"[ 41] whence Stratford is only a few miles distant. And as the Queen was much diverted with the Coventry Play, "whereat Her Majesty laught well," and rewarded the performers with two bucks, and five marks in money: who, "what rejoicing upon their ample reward, and what triumphing upon the good acceptance, vaunted their Play was never so dignified, nor ever any Players before so beatified:" but especially if our young bard afterwards gained admittance into the castle to see a Play, which the same evening, after supper, was there "presented of a very good theme, but so set-forth by the actors' well-handling, that pleasure and mirth made it seem very short, though it lasted two good hours and more,"[ 42] we may imagine what an impression was made on his infant mind. Indeed the dramatic cast of many parts of that superb entertainment, which continued nineteen days, and was the most splendid of the kind ever attempted in this kingdom; the addresses to the Queen in the personated characters of a Sybille, a Savage Man, and Sylvanus, as she approached or departed from the castle; and, on the water, by Arlon, a Triton, or the Lady of the Lake, must have had a very great effect on a young imagination, whose dramatic powers were hereafter to astonish the world.
But that the Historical Play was considered by our old writers, and by Shakspeare himself, as distinct from Tragedy and Comedy, will sufficiently appear from various passages in their works. "Of late days," says Stow, "in place of those Stage Playes[ 43] hath been used Comedies, Tragedies, Enterludes, and Histories both true and fayned."[ 44] Beaumont and Fletcher, in the prologue to The Captain, say,
"This is nor Comedy, nor Tragedy,
Polonius in Hamlet commends the actors, as the best in the world, "either for Tragedie, Comedie, Historie, Pastorall," &c. And Shakspcare's friends, Heminge and Condell, in the first folio edit. of his plays, in 1623,[ 45] have not only entitled their book "Mr. William Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies:" but in their table of contents have arranged them under those three several heads; placing in the class of Histories, "K. John, Richard II., Henry IV., 2 pts. Henry V., Henry VI., 3 pts. Rich. III., and Henry VIII.;" to which they might have added such of his other plays as have their subjects taken from the old Chronicles or Plutarch's Lives.
Although Shakspeare is found not to have been the first who invented this species of drama,[ 46] yet he cultivated it with such superior success, and threw upon this simple inartificial tissue of scenes such a blaze of genius, that his Histories maintain their ground in defiance of Aristotle and all the critics of the Classic school, and will ever continue to interest and instruct an English audience.
Before Shakspeare wrote, Historical Plays do not appear to have attained this distinction, being not mentioned in Queen Elizabeth's licence in 1574[ 47] to James Burbage and others, who are only impowered "to use, exercyse, and occupie the arte and facultye of playenge Comedies, Tragedies, Enterludes, Stage-Playes and such other like." But when Shakspeare's Histories had become the ornaments of the stage, they were considered by the public and by himself, as a formal and necessary species, and are thenceforth so distinguished in public instruments. They are particularly inserted in the licence granted by King James I. in 1603,[ 48] to W. Shakspeare himself, and the players his fellows; who are authorized "to use and exercise the arte and faculty of playing Comedies, Tragedies, Histories, Interludes, Morals, Pastorals, Stage-Plaies, and such like."
The same merited distinction they continued to maintain after his death, till the Theatre itself was extinguished; for they are expressly mentioned in a warrant in 1622, for licensing certain "late Comedians of Queen Anne deceased, to bring up children in the qualitie and exercise of playing Comedies, HISTORIES, Interludes, Morals, Pastorals, Stage-Plaies, and such like."[ 49] The same appears in an admonition issued in 1637[ 50] by Philip Earl of Pembroke and Montgomery, then Lord Chamberlain, to the master and wardens of the company of Printers and Stationers; wherein is set forth the complaint of his Majesty's servants the Players, that "diverse of their books of Comedyes and Tragedyes, CHRONICLE-HISTORYES, and the like," had been printed and published to their prejudice, &c.
This distinction, we see, prevailed for near half a century; but after the Restoration, when the Stage revived for the entertainment of a new race of auditors, many of whom had been exiled in France, and formed their taste from the French theatre, Shakspeare's Histories appear to have been no longer relished; at least the distinction respecting them is dropt in the patents that were immediately granted after the King's return.
This appears not only from the allowance to Mr. William Beeston in June 1660,[ 51] to use the house in Salisbury-court "for a Play-house, wherein Comedies,Tragedies,Tragi-comedies, Pastoralls, and Interludes may be acted," but also from the fuller Grant (dated August 21, 1670)[ 52] to Thomas Killigrew, esq. and Sir William Davenant, knt. by which they have authority to erect two companies of players, and to fit up two theatres, "for the representation of Tragydies, Comedyes, Playes, Operas, and all other entertainments of that nature."
But while Shakspeare was the favourite dramatic poet, his Histories had such superior merit, that he might well claim to be the chief, if not the only historic dramatist that kept possession of the English stage: which gives a strong support to the tradition mentioned by Gildon,[ 53] that, in a conversation with Ben Jonson, our bard vindicated his Historical Plays, by urging, that, as he had found "the nation in general very ignorant of history, he wrote them in order to instruct the people in this particular." This is assigning not only a good motive, but a very probable reason for his preference of this species of composition; since we cannot doubt but his illiterate countrymen would not only want such instruction when he first began to write, notwithstanding the obscure dramatic chroniclers who preceded him; but also that they would highly profit by his admirable Lectures on English History so long as he continued to deliver them to his audience. And, as it implies no claim to his being the first who introduced our chronicles on the stage, I see not why the tradition should be rejected.
Upon the whole we have had abundant proof, that both Shakspeare and his contemporaries considered his Histories, or Historical Plays, as of a legitimate distinct species, sufficiently separate from Tragedy and Comedy; a distinction which deserves the particular attention of his critics and commentators; who, by not adverting to it, deprive him of his proper defence and best vindication for his neglect of the unities, and departure from the classical dramatic forms. For, if it be the first canon of sound criticism to examine any work by whatever rule the author prescribed for his own observance, then we ought not to try Shakspeare's Histories by the general laws of Tragedy or Comedy. Whether the rule itself be vicious or not, is another inquiry; but certainly we ought to examine a work only by those principles according to which it was composed. This would save a deal of impertinent criticism.
V. We have now brought the inquiry as low as was intended, but cannot quit it, without entering into a short description of what may be called the Economy of the ancient English Stage.
Such was the fondness of our forefathers for dramatic entertainments, that not fewer than Nineteen Playhouses had been opened before the year 1633, when Prynne published his Histriomastix.[ 54] From this writer it should seem that "tobacco, wine and beer,"[ 55] were in those days the usual accommodations in the theatre.
With regard to the Players themselves, the several companies were (as hath been already shown)[ 56] retainers, or menial servants to particular noblemen,[ 57] who protected them in the exercise of their profession: and many of them were occasionally Strollers, that travelled from one gentleman's house to another. Yet so much were they encouraged, that, notwithstanding their multitude, some of them acquired large fortunes. Edward Allen, master of the playhouse called the Globe, who founded Dulwich College, is a known instance. And an old writer speaks of the very inferior actors, whom he calls the Hirelings, as living in a degree of splendour, which was thought enormous in that frugal age.[ 58]
At the same time the ancient prices of admission were often very low. Some houses had penny-benches.[ 59] The "two-penny gallery" is mentioned in the prologue to Beaumont and Fletcher's Woman-Hater.[ 60] And seats of three-pence, and a groat seem to be intended in the passage of Pyrnne above referred to. Yet different houses varied in their prices: that play-house called the HOPE had seats of five several rates from six-pence to half-a-crown.[ 61] But the general price of what is now called the Pit, seems to have been a shilling.[ 62]
The day originally set apart for theatrical exhibition appears to have been Sunday; probably because the first dramatic pieces were of a religious cast. During a great part of Queen Elizabeth's reign, the playhouses were only licensed to be open on that day:[ 63] but before the end of her reign, or soon after, this abuse was probably removed.
The usual time of acting was early in the afternoon,[ 64] plays being generally performed by day-light.[ 65] All female parts were performed by men, no English actress being ever seen on the public stage[ 66] before the Civil Wars.
Lastly, with regard to the playhouse furniture and ornaments, a writer of King Charles the Second's time,[ 67] who well remembered the preceding age, assures us, that in general "they had no other scenes nor decorations of the stage, but only old tapestry, and the stage strewed with rushes, with habits accordingly."[ 68] Yet Coryate thought our theatrical exhibitions, &c. splendid, when compared with what he saw abroad. Speaking of the theatre for comedies at Venice, he says, "The house is very beggarly and base in comparison of our stately playhouses in England: neyther can their actors compare with ours for Apparrell, Shewes, and Musicke. Here I observed certaine things that I never saw before: for, I saw Women act, a thing that I never saw before, though I have heard that it hath been sometimes used in London: and they performed it with as good a grace, action, gesture, and whatsoever convenient for a Player, as ever I saw any masculine actor."[ 69]
It ought however to be observed, that, amid such a multitude of playhouses as subsisted in the metropolis before the civil wars, there must have been a great difference between their several accommodations, ornaments, and prices; and that some would be much more showy than others, though probably all were much inferior in splendour to the two great theatres after the Restoration.
*** The preceding Essay, although some of the materials are new arranged, hath received no alteration deserving notice, from what it was in the second Edition, 1767, except in Section IV. which in the present impression hath been much enlarged.
This is mentioned, because, since it was first published, the history of the English stage hath been copiously handled by Mr. Tho. Warton in his "History of English Poetry, 1774, &c." 3 vols. 4to. (wherein is inserted whatever in these volumes fell in with his subject); and by Edmond Malone, esq. who, in his "Historical Account of the English Stage," (Shakesp. vol. i. pt. ii. 1790), hath added greatly to our knowledge of the oeconomy and usages of our ancient theatres.
1. Bp. Warburton's Shakesp. vol. v. p. 338.-- Pref. to Dodsley's Old Plays.-- Riccoboni's Acct. of Theat. of Europe, &c. &c. These were all the Author had seen when he first drew up this Essay.
2. See Ben Jonson's Poetaster, act iii. sc. 4, and his Masque of The Fortunate Isles. Whalley's Edit. vol. ii. p. 49, vol. vi. p. 190.
3. Howleglass is said in the Preface to have died in M.CCCC.L. At the end of the book, in M.CCC.L.
4. C. Emprunted . . . by William Copland: without date, in 4to. bl.let. among Mr. Garrick's Old Plays, K. vol. X.
5. This play has been reprinted by Mr. Hawkins in his Origin of the English Drama, 3 vols. 12mo. Oxford, 1773. See vol. i. p. 27.
6. The second person of the Trinity seems to be meant.
7. Those above mentioned are male characters.
8. i.e. The Five Senses. These are frequently exhibited as five distinct personages upon the Spanish stage; (see Riccoboni, p. 98.) but our moralist has represented them all by one character.
9. See more of Every-man, in Series II. Pref. to B. ii. Note.
10. Emprynted by me Wynkyn de Worde, no date: in 4to. bl. let. This play has also been reprinted by Mr. Hawkins in his Origin of the English Drama vol. i. p. 69.
11. Apud Dunestapliam . . . quendam ludum de sancta Katerina (quem MIRACULA vulgariter appellamus) fecit. Ad quć decoranda, petiit a sacrista sancti Albani, ut sibi Capć Chorales accommodarentur, et obtinuit. Et fuit ludus ille de sancta Katerina. Vita Abbat. ad fin. Hist. Mat. Paris, fol. 1639, p. 56. We see here that Plays of Miracles were become common enough in the time of Mat. Paris, who flourished about 1240. But that indeed appears from the more early writings of Fitz-Stephens: quoted below.
12. Vid. Abrégé Chron. de l'Hist. de France, par M. Henault. a l'ann, 1179.
13. See Fitz-Stephens's Description of London, preserved by Stow, Londinia pro spectaculis theatralibus, pro ludis scenicis, ludas habet sanctiores, representationes miraculorum, &c. He is thought to have written in the reign of Hen. II. and to have died in that of Rich. I. It is true, at the end of this book we find mentioned Henricum regem tertium; but this is doubtless Henry the Second's son, who was crowned during the life of his father, in 1170, and is generally distinguished as Rex juvenis, Rex filius, and sometimes they were jointly named Reges Anglić. From a passage in his Chap. De Religione, it should seem that the body of St. Thomas Becket was just then a new acquisition to the Church of Canterbury.
14. See Prologue to Wife of Bath's Tale, v. 6137. Tyrwhitt's Ed.
15. M. L'Enfant. Vid. Hist. du Conc. de Constance, vol. ii. p. 440.
16. "The Regulations and Establishments of the Houshold of Hen. Alg. Percy, 5th Earl of Northumb. Lond. 1770." 8vo. Whereof a small impression was printed by order of the late Duke and Duchess of Northumberland to bestow in presents to their friends. Although begun in 1512, some of the Regulations were composed so late as 1525.
17. This was not so small a sum then as it may now appear; for in another part of this MS. the price ordered to be given for a fat ox is but 13s. 4d. and for a lean one 8s.
18. At this rate the number of Plays acted must have been twenty.
19. Pr. at the Sun in Fleet-street, by W. de Worde, no date, b. l. 4to
20. Mr. Garrick has an imperfect copy, (Old Plays, I. vol. iii.) The Dramatis Personae are, "C. The Messenger (or Prologue). Nature naturate. Humanyte. Studyous Desire. Sensuall Appetyte. The Taverner. Experyence. Ygnoraunce. (Also yf ye lyste ye may brynge in a dysgysynge)." Afterwards follows a table of the matters handled in the interlude; among which are, "C. Of certeyn conclusions prouvynge the yerthe must nedes be rounde, and that yt is in circumference above xxi. M. myle."--"C. Of certeyne points of cosmographye -- and of dyvers straunge regyons,-- and of the new founde landys and the maner of the people." This part is extremely curious, as it shows what notions were entertained of the new American discoveries by our own countrymen.
21. Described in Series II. Preface to Book ii. The Dramatis Personae of this piece are, "C. Messenger, Lusty Juventus, Good Counsail, Knowledge, Sathan the devyll, Hypocrisie, Fellowship, Abominable-lyving [an Harlot], God's-merciful-promises."
22. I have also discovered some few Exeats and Intrats in the very old Interlude of the Four Elements.
23. Bp. Bale had applied the name of Tragedy to his Mystery of Gods Promises, in 1538. In 1540 John Palsgrave, B.D. had republished a Latin comedy, called Acolastus, with an English version. Holingshed tells us (vol. iii. p. 850), that so early as 1520 the king had "a good comedie of Plautus plaied" before him at Greenwich; but this was in Latin, as Mr. Farmer informs us in his curious "Essay on the Learning of Shakespeare," 8vo. p. 31.
24. See Ames, p. 316. This play appears to have been first printed under the name of Gorboduc; then under that of Ferrer and Porrer, in 1568; and again, under Gorboduc, 1590. Ames calls the first edition 4to; Langbane, 8vo; and Tanner, 12mo.
25. The general reception the old Moralities had upon the stage, will account for the fondness of all our first poets for allegory. Subjects of this kind were familiar with every one.
26. Bp. Warburt. Shakesp. vol. v.
27. Reprinted among Dodsley's Old Plays, vol. i.
28. In some of these appeared characters full as extraordinary as in any of the old Moralites. In Ben Jonson's Masque of Christmas, 1616, one of the personages is Minced Pye.
29. The first part of which was printed in 1559.
30. Catal. of Royal and Noble Authors, vol. i. p. 166, 7.
31. This must not be confounded with the Mysteries acted on Corpus Christi day by the Franciscans at Coventry, which were also called COVENTRY PLAYS, and of which an account is given from T. Warton's Hist. of Eng. Poetry, &c. in Malone's Shakspeare. vol. ii. part ii. pag 13, 14.
32. Not 1012, as printed in Laneham's Letter, mentioned below.
33. Ro. Laneham, whose LETTER, containing a full description of the Shows, &c. is reprinted at large in Nichols's "Progresses of Q. Elizabeth," &c. vol. i. 4to. 1788. That writer's orthography, being peculiar and affected, is not here followed.
Laneham describes this play of Hock Tuesday, which was "presented in an historical cue by certain good-hearted men of Coventry" (p. 32), and which was "wont to be play'd in their citie yearly" (p. 33), as if it were peculiar to them, terming it "their old storial show" (p. 32). And so it might be as represented and expressed by them "after their manner" (p. 33): although we are also told by Bevil Higgons, that St. Brice's Eve was still celebrated by the Northern English in commemoration of this massacre of the Danes, the women beating brass instruments, and singing old rhymes, in praise of their cruel ancestors. See his Short View of Eng. History, 8vo. p. 17. (The Preface is dated 1734).
34. Laneham, p. 37.
35. Ibid. p. 33.
37. Ibid. p. 32.
38. Laneham. p. 33.
39. The rhymes, &c. prove this play to have been in English: whereas Mr. Tho. Warton thinks the Mysteries composed before 1328 were in Latin. Malone's Shakesp. vol. ii. pt. ii. p. 9.
40. Laneham, p. 32.
41. See Nichols's Progresses, vol. 1. p. 57.
42. Laneham, pp. 38, 39. This was on Sunday evening, July 9.
43. The Creation of the World, acted at Skinners-well in 1409.
44. See Stow's Survey of London, 1603, 4to. p. 94, (said in the title-page to be "written in the year 1598.") See also Warton's Observations on Spenser, vol. ii. p. 109.
45. The same distinction is continued in the 2d and 3d folios, inc.
46 See Malone's Shakesp. vol. i. pt. ii. p. 31.
47. Ibid. vol. i. pt. ii. p. 37.
48. Ibid. vol. i. pt. ii.p. 40
49. Ibid. p. 49. Here Histories or Historical Plays, are found totally to have excluded the mention of Tragedies; a proof of their superior popularity. In an Order for the King's Comedians to attend K. Charles I. in his summer's progress, 1636, (ibid. p. 144.) Histories are not particularly mentioned; but so neither are Tragedies: they heing briefly directed to "act Playes, Comedyes, and Interlude, without any lett," &c.
50. Ibid. p. 139.
51. This is believed to be the date by Mr. Malone, vol. ii. pt.. ii. p. 239.
52. Malone vol. ii. part ii. p. 244.
53. Ibid vol. vi. p. 427.
54. He speaks in p. 492, of the Playhouses in Bishopsgate-street, and on Ludgate-hill, which are not among the seventeen enumerated in the Preface to Dodsley's Old Plays. Nay, it appears from Rymer's MSS. that Twenty-three Playhouses had been at different periods open in London: and even Six of them at one time. See Malone's Shakesp. vol. i. pt. ii. p. 48.
55. So, I think, we may infer from the following passage, viz. "How many are there, who, according to their several qualities, spend 2d. 3d. 4d. 6d. 12d. 18d. 2s. and sometimes 4s. or 5s. at a play-house day by day, if coach-hire, boat-hire, tobacco, wine, beere, and such like vaine expences, which playes do usually occasion, be cast into the reckoning?" Prynne's Histriomastix. p. 322.
But that tobacco was smoked in the playhouses, appears from Taylor the Water-poet, in his Proclamation for Tobacco's Propagation. "Let Playhouses, drinking-schools, taverns, &c. be continually haunted with the contaminous vapours of it; nay (if it be possible) bring it into the Churches, and there chock up their preachers."-- Works, p. 253. And this was really the case at Cambridge: James I. sent a letter, in 1607, against "taking Tobacco" in St. Mary's. So I learn from my friend Dr. Farmer.
A gentleman has informed me, that once going into a church in Holland, he saw the male part of the audience sitting with their hats on, smoking tobacco, while the preacher was holding forth in his morning-gown.
56. See the extracts above, from the E. of Northumb. Houshold Book.
57. See the Pref. to Dodsley's Old Plays. The author of an old Invective against the Stage, called, A third Blast of Retrait from Plaies, &c. 1580, 12mo. says, "Alas! that private affection should so raigne in the nobilitie, that to pleasure their servants, and to upholde them in their vanity; they should restraine the magistrates from executing their office! . . . They (the nobility) are thought to be covetous by permitting their servants . . . to live at the devotion or almes of other men, passing, from countrie to countrie, from one gentleman's house to another, offering their service, which is a kind of beggerie. Who indeede, to speake more trulie, are become beggers for their servants. For commonlie the good-wil men beare to their lordes, makes them drew the stringes of their purses to extende their liberalitie."-- Vid. pp. 75, 76, &c.
58. Stephen Gosson, in his Schoole of Abuse, 1579, 12mo. fol.23, says thus of what he terms in his margin Players-men: "Over lashing in apparel is so common a fault, that the very hyerlings of some of our Players, which stand at revirsion of vi s. by the week, jet under gentlemens noses in sutis of silke, exercising themselves to prating on the stage, and common scoffing when they come abrode, where they look askance over the shoulder at every man, of whom the Sunday before they begged an almes. I speake not this, as though everye one that professeth the qualitie so abused himselfe, for it is well knowen, that some of them are sober, discreete, properly learned, honest housholders and citizens, well-thought on among their neighbours at home," [he seems to mean Edward Allen above-mentioned] "though the pryde of their shadowes (I meane those hangbyes, whom they succour with stipend) cause them to be somewhat ill-talked of abroad."
In a subsequent period we have the following satirical fling at the showy exterior and supposed profits of the actors of that time. Vid. Greene's Groatsworth of Wit, 1625, 4to. 'What is your profession?'--'Truly, Sir, . . . I am a Player.' 'A Player? . . . I took you rather for a Gentleman of great living; for, if by outward habit men shall be censured, I tell you, you would be taken for a substantial man.'--'So I am where I dwell . . . What, though the world once went hard with me, when I was fayne to carry my playing-fardle a foot-backe: Tempora Mutantur . . . for my very share in playing apparrell will not be sold for two hundred pounds . . . Nay more, I can serve to make a pretty speech, for I was a country author, passing at a Moral, &c.'-- See Roberto's Tale, sign. D. 3. b.
59. So a MS. of Oldys, from Tom Nash, an old pamphlet-writer. And this is confirmed by Taylor the Water-poet, in his Praise of Beggerie, (p. 99).
"Yet have I seen a begger with his many, (sc. vermin)
Come at a Play-house, all in for one penny."
60. So in the Belman's Night-Walks by Decker, 1616, 4to. "Pay thy twopence to a Player, in this gallery thou mayest sit by a harlot."
61. Induct, to Ben Jonson's Bartholomew-fair: An ancient satirical piece, called The Black Booke, Lond. 1604, 4to. talks of "The sixpenny roomes in Play-houses;" and leaves a legacy to one whom he calls "Arch-tobacco-taker of England, in ordinaries, upon stages both common and private."
62. Shakesp. Prol. to Hen. VIII.-- Beaum. and Fletch. Prol. to the Captain, and to the Mad-lover. The pit probably had its name from one of the play-houses having been a cock-pit.
63. So Ste. Gosson, in his Schoole of Abuse, 1579, 12mo, speaking of the Players, says, "These, because they are allowed to play every Sunday make iiii or v. Sundayes at least every week," fol. 24. So the author of A Second and Third Blast of Retrait from Plaies, 1580, 12mo. "Let the magistrate but repel them from the libertie of plaeing on the Sabboth-daie . . To plaie on the Sabboth is but a priviledge of sufferance, and might with ease be repelled, were it thoroughly followed,"-- pp. 61, 62. So again, "Is not the Sabboth of al other daies the most abused? . . . Wherefore abuse not so the Sabboth-daie, my brethren; leave not the temple of the Lord." . . . "Those unsaverie morsels of unseemelie sentences passing out of the mouth of a ruffenlie plaier, doth more content the hungrie humors of the rude multitude, and carrieth better rellish in their mouthes, than the bread of the worde, &c." Vide page 63, 65, 69, &c. I do not recollect that exclamations of this kind occur in Prynne, whence I conclude that this enormity no longer subsisted in his time.
It should also seem, from the author of the Third Blast above quoted, that the churches still continued to be used occasionally for theatres. Thus, in p. 77, he says, that the Players (who, as hath been observed, were servants of the nobility), "under the title of their maisters, or as reteiners, are priviledged to roave abroad, and permitted to publish their mametree in everie temple of God, and that throughout England, unto the horrible contempt of praier."
64. "He entertaines us," says Overbury in his character of an actor "in the best leasure of our life, that is, betweene meales; the most unfit time either for study, or bodily exercise." Even so late as in the reign of Charles II. plays generally began at three in the afternoon.
65. See Biogr. Brit. i. 117, n. d.
66. I say "no English Actress . . . on the Public Stage," because Prynne speaks of it as an unusual enormity, that "they had French-women actors in a play not long since personated in Blackfriars Playhouse." This was in 1629. And though female parts were performed by men or boys on the public stage, yet in masques at court, the queen and her ladies made no scruple to perform the principal parts, especially in the reigns of James I. and Charles I.
Sir William Davenant, after the Restoration, introduced women, scenery, and higher prices. See Cibber's Apology for his own Life.
67. See a short Discourse on the English Stage, subjoined to Flecknor's "Love's Kingdom," 1674, 12mo.
68. It appears from an Epigram of Taylor the Water-poet, that one of the principal theatres in his time, viz. the Globe on the Bankside, Southwark (which Ben Jonson calls the Glory of the Bank, and Fort of the whole parish), had been covered with thatch till it was burnt down in 1613.-- See Taylor's Sculler, Epig. 22, p. 31. Jonson's Execration on Vulcan.
Puttenham tells us they used vizards in his time, "partly to supply the want of players, when there were more parts than there were persons, or that it was not thought meet to trouble . . . princes chambers with too many folkes."-- Art. of Eng. Poes. 1589, p. 26. From the last clause, it should seem that they were chiefly used in the Masques at Court.
69. Coryate's Crudities, 4to. 1611, p. 247.