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scenery and decoration at the beginning and during the early part of Shakspeare's career. That this simplicity of apparatus presented many advantages—that, certainly, it was more poetical in its effect than the complicated machinery and costly contrivances which pretend to effect great things—and fail in as many, and by the noise of their frequent changes, (at least in Shakspeare's pieces) tend rather to destroy than enhance the illusion Schlegel and Tieck have severally sought to prove. At the date of Shakspeare's greatest success (about 1600), some improvement had, it is true, been made, even in these things. Imitations were now furnished of rocks, tombs, altars, lions and serpents, dogs and horses; nay, even a car of Phaeton, trees of the Hesperides, a bedstead, two church towers, a City of Rome, a rainbow, a sun and moon, are mentioned in an old theatrical catalogue belonging to the Lord Admiral's company in 1598. However, the old simple arrangement was retained on the whole, and these things must be regarded as exceptions in the way of ornament, which, in all probability, passed from the exhibitions at court and at the mansions of the nobles to the public theatres. With the poverty of the latter, the splendour of the representations at court, and especially of the masks, in which the actors glittered in gold and silver, satin and silk, formed a striking contrast. The decorations, too, were in better taste and more skilfully executed; castles, houses, arbours, altars, tombs, rocks, and caves, were not unusual, and were sometimes made only too natural; since, for instance, to represent a wood, real trees were cut down, and planted on the spot, or (as in the spectacle of Narcissus) a live fox was let loose, to be captured by huntsmen. Theatrical furniture of this splendid kind, when no longer required, was often sold to the public theatres; so that some of them were able, in many respects, to vie with the exhibitions at court; and it seems no exaggeration, when in Robert Green's “Groat's Worth of Wit," an actor is made to boast that his share in the theatrical wardrobe is worth £200, or when pious people complained that two hundred actors might be seen swaggering in silk, while five hundred poor citizens were in want and famine. (Petition to Walsingham, 25th Jan., 1586.)
The liberties which the spectators took resembled that poetical
license with which the actors played, and which the stage arrangements required. The common people frequented the cheapest places, which were the pit and galleries. The higher classes sat in the boxes, which were erected above the pit, and beneath the galleries, and communicated directly with the stage. In many theatres (especially in those called private,) the nobles enjoyed the right of passing from the boxes to the Proscenium, where they sat on stools, or reclined on rush mats, smoking their pipes, while the lower orders whiled away the intervals between the acts with books, cards, cracking nuts, eating apples, drinking beer, or smoking tobacco. This license, far from impeding or shocking actors and authors, served, on the contrary, to keep up the poetic tension. It allowed of many a pertinent word, and many a good hit might be interpolated by a clever actor, or his part worked out more in detail, and the represented character presented more livingly before the spectators. The whole had more the appearance of a refreshing and exciting play of the fancy, than is, or indeed could be the case now, while, beneath the pressing weight of our strictly uniform etiquette, the stage has sunk down to a level with the stiff diplomatic circle which, like policy itself, may be every thing but poetical. While, then, the stage and the public were not so distinctly separated as is the case at present, all was more intimate, more familiar; and poets and actors derived from this appearance of the house, the beneficial feeling of an intrinsic communion and sympathy with the people for whose amusement and improvement they had to exert themselves—a feeling which our poets and actors scarcely dream of, whilst it only depended on their own talents and exertions to acquire for themselves that respect which was sufficient to prevent any gross violation of the necessary limits.
Indeed, it must have depended entirely on the talent, genius, and moral character of poet and player, whether in such circumstances the theatre was to be maintained in a becoming degree of refinement and decency, or should be allowed to degenerate into rudeness and vulgarity. On these points, however, we have sufficient grounds for forming a favourable opinion, at least about the time of Shakspeare's first appearance.
Before this period, indeed, the strolling companies do not appear to have been held
in much esteem. At least, a statute of 1572 places them in the same category with boxers, bearleaders, jugglers, and pedlars, and orders them to be imprisoned as vagabonds, unless they should have been licensed by at least two justices of the peace. But, in 1574, five of the servants of the Earl of Leicester (among whom was James Burbage, already mentioned, the father of Shakspeare's friend, the famous Richard Burbage, whose wonderful acting in the characters of Hamlet, Lear, and Othello, was so celebrated) obtained the first royal letters patent, and therewith permission to give, under the superintendence of the master of the revels, representations at court, and in all England. The sovereign's eight players of Interludes were also maintained during Elizabeth's reign; besides these, the queen, (1583) having selected twelve of the best actors out of the several companies of the nobles, gave them the title of the Queen's Players, and settled on them a yearly salary of £38. 4s. During her reign, they formed the most famous company in the kingdom, in comparison with whom the fourteen companies of the nobles, for so many existed in the years 1586-1600, fell far into the back-ground. James was not less favourably disposed to the players, and soon after his accession he conferred on the Lord Chamberlain's company the title of “ the King's Servants,” and therewith the right of exhibiting in all England comedies, tragedies, histories, interludes, moralities, pastorals, and spectacles. His example was imitated by his Queen Anne and the Prince Henry of Wales: the former taking the company of the Earl of Worcester under her prtection; and the latter that of the Lord Admiral (the Earl of Nottingham), the one being thenceforward called the Queen's, and the other the Prince's Servants. The chapel boys, also, of Queen Elizabeth (“ The little eyases,” of Hamlet,) with the title of “Children of her Majesty's Revels,” were under the special protection of the Queen, and exhibited their popular representations on different stages, but especially at Blackfriars and Whitefriars.
These boys, from their earliest years, were trained and educated for the stage, and it was only natural that such as were not quite destitute of talent and application should, in time, form actors of the greatest excellence. The rivalry and emulation, too, of the
four companies, whose members were by no means regarded as state servants, appointed and pensioned for life, but as hirelings, liable to dismissal, whose good or bad fortune consequently depended on the favour of their patrons, and their acceptance with the public, must have stimulated them to the greatest exertion—such as could not fail of being in the highest degree beneficial to their profession. The universal fondness of the people for theatrical exhibitions was no less calculated to advance it. This, and the estimation in which the best actors were heldas the instances of Shakspeare, Burbage, Heywood, and others, prove-must have tended to draw forth and encourage youthful talents. It is, therefore, nothing surprising that the improvement of histrionic art should have kept pace with the advance of dramatic poetry, even though the latter made gigantic steps in the twenty years between 1580 and 1600. At the date of Shakspeare's first appearance, the players must already have arrived at a high degree of excellence, or they could not have done justice to the earliest works of the great poet, nor even to those also of his older contemporaries. The part of “ Barabas," for instance, in Marlowe's “ Jew of Malta,” is so difficult, that the piece has been reproduced within these ten years on the London stage, in order to exhibit the powers of a famous actor. Equally difficult is the part of Tamburlane, in the play of that name, which Marlowe produced, as is well established, about 1586. Shakspeare's “Titus Andronicus,” and still more his “Henry the Sixth,” required a number of practised and skilful actors; and it may safely be assumed, that poets who were also actors would not have carried their requisitions beyond the powers of their colleagues, since, by so doing, they must inevitably have prejudiced the success of their own poetic creations. No doubt, that extravagant, overwrought acting in the expression of the passions and affections—the violent gesticulation and grimacing, which Hamlet ridicules—were still to be met with even at this time, since it fully agrees with the character of most of the pieces of the day, and with the general taste of the public. But that a consciousness of its absurdity was, nevertheless, soon arrived at, and this false manner quickly abandoned, is proved by the few simple rules which Hamlet delivers to the players. The parts in Shakspeare's later pieces, almost without exception,
require such fine and well-weighed acting; his nervous and pregnant, frequently high-soaring, passionate, and figurative language, demand an enunciation so perfect, and frequently suppose so expressive a play of countenance,—as a dumb accompaniment of the action, and oftentimes (as in Macbeth, Lear, Hamlet, &c.) the principal effect of the poetry depends so closely and entirely on the actor's representative skill, ---that we are forced to place the powers and capacities of the latter on a par with the grandeur and beauty of the poetry. In fact, the fame of a Burbage, an Alleyn, a most eminent tragedian, and of a Wilson and a Tarleton, most rare comedians, of a Nathanael Field and John Underwood—the latter celebrated even a sa boy-was so great, that names are quoted even in the present day, and, supported by the deatlıless genius of Shakspeare, will probably survive to all time.
Such was the general condition of the English stage, and of dramatic art, when Shakspeare began his poetic career. In order, however, to enable us to form a correcter judgment how much this great poct owed to the history of his art—to the past on which he stood, and to the present upon which he entered—we must, in conclusion, draw a brief but characteristic sketch of the most eminent poets of the stage who may be regarded as his immediate predecessors or older contemporaries. Here, however, it is necessary to premise, that from personal examination of their works, we know very little, comparatively, of the older English dramatists. Even in England but a small number of them is commonly known, many of them exist only in MS., and still more, without doubt, are irretrievably lost. The cause of this lies partly in the want of a taste among Englishmen for art and its history, but still more in the fact, that at this time a piece did not appear in print immediately upon its representation, but, on the contrary, the publication was in many cases purposely hindered and delayed. In consequence of the great competition, each company sought to form a stock of its own pieces, and naturally prized most highly those which met with the most extensive reception. Such pieces were, therefore, preserved in MS., and often existed merely in the parts which were separately copied out for the several actors, and it was only after they had had their run--probably many years afterwards—that they first appeared in print. Of the