Page images

other of these all his plays were subsequently performed. In 1603 the company consisted of Laurence Fletcher, William Shakspeare, Richard Burbage, Augustine Phillipes, John Heminge, and Henry Condell, Shakspeare's literary executors, and several others; the most eminent performers of their age. The theatre, an hexagonal wooden building, was partly thatched and partly exposed to the weather, and the performances generally, if not always, took place in the afternoon, then the idlest time of the day. Rooms or boxes were provided for the wealthier classes, the admission to which varied from a shilling to half a crown; whilst the frequenters of the pit either stood or sate on the ground. The wits and critics of the times were admitted on the stage ; and so far was this practice from detracting, as might be imagined, from the interest and illusion of the play, this identification of the audience with the actors, at a time when the scenery was of the simplest kind, and the costume of the actors differed not from that of ordinary life, must on most occasions have given to the scene a lifelike reality to which we are strangers. Such briefly were the theatres in which Shakspeare

Made those flights upon the banks of Thames
That so did take Eliza and our James.'

[ocr errors]

Such, also, in the dearth of clubs and coffee-houses, of novels, newspapers,

and other means of information, were the studies as well as the entertainment of the age, where men picked up, in the main, whatever they knew of foreign countries and distant times, of classical lore and English history. And here, by the great good fortune of that age, were brought together the court and its statesmen, from Nonsuch House or Westminster-the Sydneys, the Raleighs, the Essexes, the Cecils, and the Bacons ; the soldier of fortune, like Falstaff, the grave citizen, the humourist and man of pleasure, the weather-beaten adventurer of the water-side just landed from Guinea or Bermuda ;-all to see set before them every shade of human character—their own among the number-every exhibition of human passion, affection, and caprice; from the most daring and subtle intellect to the poorest driveller; genius at one time taking mystic flights, at another flickering on the verge of imbecility and


At the time when Shakspeare set foot in the metropolis the stage was passing through a new epoch. The Moralities which might in his childhood have satisfied a less critical audience at Coventry or Stratford, and the dumb shows and pageants provided for the Virgin Queen at Kenilworth or Windsor had lost their attractions. * The diffusion of classical learning, numerous translations of the dramatic poets of Greece and Rome, intellects sharpened by the great theological controversies in which they had been lately engaged, the stronger sense of national and individual freedom, had prepared men for a keener relish of the higher productions of art in all its branches. The result is seen in every direction. It would have violated all experience had it not been seen in that form of literature which represented more fully than any other the condition of the national mind, and more than any other appealed to the sympathies and experience of all classes in the nation. A people brave, resolute, and energetic, who had passed, by extraordinary exertion, through so fearful an ordeal, scarcely of less duration than 150 years, and then einerged safely on the firm ground, as they looked back on the stormy ocean from which they had so recently escaped, would expect in their poets and teachers an earnestness and reality of treatment, a vividness of perception, a power of reproduction, wholly different from the mere didactic attitude and philosophic musing into which poets are permitted to fall in more tranquil times. They would forgive any errors rather than those of tameness and insensibility. Regularity of form and harmony of design would be less attractive to them than freedom of movement. Liberty they demanded, even if, as in our early dramatists, it degenerated at times into extravagance and licentiousness. Thus, within a very brief space, English literature, as represented by the drama, experienced a sudden and entire transformation, such as no other period affords the like. Nor are the dramas of Shakspeare further removed from those of his iminediate predecessors than theirs are from the Moralities and Mysteries which they had superseded in their turn.

Of the competitors for public favour when Shakspeare appeared at the Black Friars, in his new capacity as servitor, the most eminent were Lilly, Peele, Greene, and Marlowe. All of these men had been educated at one or other of the two universities; and all took to writing for the stage, with no higher object than that of relieving that poverty into which they continually relapsed from their folly and intemperance, or perhaps, as in Lilly's case, to obtain court-favour. T'hey must be entirely acquitted of any purpose to grasp those deeper questions which confused and perplexed the age; still less of endeavouring to discover the true solution of them. To attempt to enter upon that vast theatre of human experience now displayed before them, to comprehend the various purposes and phases of human life, and its relations, in its novel position, to the past, the present, or the future-this was a task for which they had neither the requisite faculties nor the necessary sympathy. If they could represent the passing and grotesque humours of their age, if they could point some moral lesson against its more obvious transgressions, they aimed no higher. And often, like men of meagre genius and less subtle perception, they mistook the mere transitory phenomena for the cause; their feebler imaginations were taken captive by the disastrous effects of vice and passion, whilst the subtler and more spiritual incentives they never fathomed. So, living in times which were favourable to poetry-and to dramatic poetry especially-when men were still inspired by the excitement of past and of passing events—when individual characterism had not yet crystallized into one dull uniformity by fixed systems of education or engrossing commercial monopoly, when the old had not so far been parted from the new as to lose its vitality and fade into the unrealism of archæology—these dramatists, with all their ability and advantages, produced nothing which could serve beyond the amusement of the hour; not a passage, not a line, not a single happy expression, could take root in the memory of their contemporaries, and secure eternity for itself among the unwritten traditions of the people. Whilst unnumbered hosts of Shakspeare's phrases, often the most plain and artless, the least obviously remarkable for any peculiarity of sound or antitbesis, or for those factitious qualities which catch the undisciplined fancy, have grown into household words, only less numerous than those of the Bible, it is impossible to trace any similar fortune in Shakspeare's contemporaries, or his immediate predecessors. And as it is inconceivable that any possible revolution of public taste should ever give life or animation to their writings, it is equally impossible to conceive that any revelations of science, before which the proudest of our present achievements must fade like the baseless fabric of a vision, should consign Shakspeare to oblivion, or render him less worthy of the profoundest study, less fresh, less striking, less instructive, less philosophical, in the truest of all senses, than he is now, than he was before gravitation or the laws of Kepler were discovered, when Copernicus

* Thus, in Greene's 'Nerer too Late,' the strolling actor says to Roberto: • Why, I am as famous for Delphrygus and The King of the Fairies as ever was any of my time. The Twelve Labours of Hercules have I terribly thundered on the stage, and played three scenes of the Devil in The High Way to Heaven.' * Have ye so?' said Roberto ; 'then I pray you pardon me.' • Nay, more,' quoth the player, 'I can serve to make a pretty speech, for I was a country author passing (good) at a Moral; for it was I that penned the Moral of Vun's Wit, The Dialogue of Dives, and for seven years' space was absolute interpreter of the puppets. But now my almanack is out of date.

The people make no estimation
Of Morals teaching education.'



was esteemed no better than a dreamer-a new but ignoble Phäethon driving the earth about the sun."

Yet these men's labours were not without their use. Steeped in classical literature, deriving their rules from classical models, guiding their judgment exclusively, though with small discrimination, by. classical authority, they inexorably determined the form and style of dramatic art. They developed the poetical capabilities of the English language. They refined it to those higher purposes of poetical literature for which, even at their time, and still more emphatically before their time, it was considered wholly unsuitable. The world was still divided between the learned and the laymen. Latin associated with the religious sympathies and scholastic supremacy of the middle ages had not yet resigned its special dignity as the only organ of inspiration. It had entered on a new and more splendid career by the revival of letters and the labours of the revivalists. The English tongue, rough, confused, unmetrical—the tongue of business and of the vulgar-was, in the lips of the educated, a condescension to vulgar ignorance and infirmity ;-a pharisaic uncleanness, which the scholar and the gentleman must contract in his associations with the unlearned, in his pity for their blindness, but of which he washed himself up to the very elbows in his communion with his fellows. It may be easy to smile at these things now; but, to those who think deeply on the subject, it must seem wonderful how a language constantly associated with ignoble uses, intensely businesslike and prosaic, despised by men of taste and learning, could pass, and that so rapidly, into the radiant sphere of poetry. What is the task of a great artist, embodying his conceptions with a piece of black charcoal and a stick, compared with that of the poet who has to clothe his most subtle thoughts, his nicest, his most incisive and accurate perceptions, in words never trained by usage to such purposes, never adequate to his needs, falsified in their true significance by carelessness and stupidity, always spilling over or falling short in the due adjustment of their popular acceptation to their etymological exactness ?

These men, then, did that for Shakspeare which it is very possible the poet, great as he was, could not have done so well for himself. They had familiarised men's minds with the laws of the drama, in the concrete; they had accustomed the ears of

* "Those new carmen which drive the earth about.'- Bacon.

Mr. Collier bas printed a letter in which the authorities of the University of Cambridge request they may be excused from complying with the royal request to act a play in English. They are contented to represent a Latin play, but an English one they consider derogatory, and the students are highly offended at the notion.


men to a stately blank verse, essentially and exclusively English in its character-indelibly associated with all our noblest poetry —and yet evidently suggested by an intense study of its classical forerunner.* Language, in their hands, was intensified and elevated, however deficient it might be in suppleness and versatility-qualities at that time less required. For stateliness and dignity, combined with strength and fervour, passages may be extracted from our elder dramatists which are not surpassed by any of their successors, Shakspeare and Milton excepted ;-and how much the latter was indebted for many of his excellences to a careful study of these early writers, no one can doubt who has taken the trouble to study the subject. If these excellences are marred by startling incongruities; if in their best passages they run into extravagance, or,

all unawares,
Fluttering their pennons vain, plumb down they drop

Ten thousand fathoms deep'that was incidental to their task. It was no more than, in their case, might have been anticipated. As they could not all at once pull up their audience to their own altitude, they descended to their audience. The mere Latinists, as they were called, proud of their scholarship and defiant of all departure from classical types, died in their theory, and lest no mark behind them ;but these men, mixing with the world, too often steeped in its excesses, and sounding the lowest depths of its misery, had more sympathy with their fellow-men and their ways. Their own experience, as they found, was of more worth to them dramatists than their learning, if they wished for popularity. So with their classical tastes and predilections they mixed up, often incongruously enough, the homely and coarse scenes of their own daily experience, in the homeliest and least idealised forms.

From 1585, when Shakspeare is supposed to have taken up his residence in London, to 1598, we have very few data to determine the poet's circumstances, conduct, or specific employments. That he was assiduous as an actor and a successful dra


This is evidently on what poor Greene prided himself--and justly so—in his dying hours. Thus in the well-known passage referring to Shakspeare: “There is an upstart crow beautified with our feathers, that with his tiger's heart wrapt in a player's hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you. Beautified with our feathers means, as he expresses it, to write blank verse, and imitate the rules of dramatic composition, to which Greene and his friends had contributed so much popularity. That a country lad like Shakspeare, not of the craft, without fame, friends, or a University education, should bombast out a blank verse' as well as the most experienced writers of the age, was a fact sufficient to alarm the jealousy of Greene and of his contemporaries.

« PreviousContinue »