Изображения страниц
PDF
EPUB

period, who, however, instead of benefiting by his advice, endeavoured to render their pieces as attractive as possible, by adorning them with dumb shows, choruses, and other devices. In spite of all defects we had made a far better progress at this time than our neighbours the French ; and were at least upon a footing with the other nations of Europe.

About the year 1589 The Spanish Tragedy was written by Kyd, and Soliman and Persida seems to have been coinposed by the same author. Though not entirely free from pedantry and affectation, a fine spirit runs through these productions, and the character of Basilisco is very well supported; and, if Kyd's play was acted before Shakspeare's Henry IV. (for they were both printed in the same year, 1599), it should seem to be the original of Falstaff. These tragedies are written in blank verse, intermixed with some passages in rhyme, where we sometimes find a smooth couplet not unworthy of Dryden, as

Where blondy suries shake their whips of steel,

And poor Ixion turns an endless wheel. About the close of the sixteenth century a sacred subject was again delivered in the dramatic form—the story of David and Absalom being wrought into a tragedy by George Peele, a very ingenious writer and a flowery poet. This piece abounds in luxuriant descriptions and fine imagery, the author's genius seeming to have been kindled by reading the Prophets and the Song of Solomon. He calls lightning by a metaphor worthy of Æschylus—“the spouse of thunder with bright and fiery wings :" nor is his descrip tion of David less worthy of admiration :

Beauteous and bright he is, among the tribes-
As when the sun, attir'd in glittering robes,
Coines dancing from his oriental gate,
And, bridegroomlike, hurls thro' the gloomy air
His radiant beams.

There are many passages in this play of which Milton need not have been ashamed, and which, perhaps, he had read with pleasure, especially the prologue, which is the regular exordium of an epic poem.

Such was the state of the English theatre, when all at once the true drama received birth and perfection from the creative genius of Shakspeare, Fletcher, Ben Jonson, and others, upon whose merits it is unnecessary to enlarge. The former, in particular, by the charms of his versification, the beauty of his speeches and descriptions, and the surprising vigour of his original and unassisted genius, exalted the English stage to so high a degree of perfection, that it rivals or surpasses the classic models of ancient Greece and Rome. But though he outshines all his contemporaries, he has not altogether extinguished them. Enough of their productions remains to prove that they constituted a very brilliant and wide-spread gallery of dramatic talent. “He overlooks and commands the admiration of posterity,” says an admirable critic;* “ but he does it from the table-land of the age in which he lived. He towers above his fellows. in shape and gesture proudly eminent:' but he was one of a race of giants, the tallest, the strongest, the most graceful, and beautiful of them ; but it was a common brood. If we allow, for argument's sake, that he was in himself equal to all his competitors put together, yet there was more dramatic excellence in that age than in the whole of the period that has elapsed since. If his contemporaries with their united strength would hardly make one Shakspeare, certain it is that all his successors would not make half a one. With the exception of a single writer, Otway, and of a single play of his (Venice Preserved), there is nobody in tragedy and dramatic poetry (I do not here speak of comedy) to be compared to the great men of the age of Shakspeare and immediately after. They are a mighty phalanx of kindred spirits, closing him round, moving in the same orbit, and impelled by the same causes in their whirling and eccentric career. The sweetness of Decker, the thought of Marston, the gravity of Chapman, the grace of Fletcher and his young-eyed wit, Jonson's learned sock, the flowing vein of Middleton, Heyw pathos of Webster, and Marlow's deep designs, add a double lustre to the sweetness, thought, gravity, grace, wit, artless nature, copiousness, ease, pathos, and sublime conceptions of Shakspeare's muse. For such an extraordinary combination and developement of fancy and genius many causes may be assigned; and we may seek for the chief of

d's ease, the

* The late Mr. Hazlitt, in his Lecture on Dramatic Literature, p. S.

them in religion, in politics, in the circumstances of the time, the recent diffusion of letters—in local situation, and in the character of the men who adorned that period, and availed themselves so nobly of the advantages placed within their reach."

This was indeed a dramatic era, since the writers for the stage, numerous and fertile as they were beyond all precedent, seem to have been hardly able to supply the demands of a people who must have been almost universally devoted to the entertainments of the stage, if we are to judge by the number of playhouses then supported in London. From the year 1570 to the year 1629, no less than seventeen hai beer built; and as the theatres were so numerous, the conipanies of players were in proportion. Besides the children of the chapel, and of the revels, we are told that Queen Elizabeth established, in handsome salaries, twelve of the principal players of that time, who went under the name of her majesty's comedians and servants. Exciu. sively of these, many noblemen retained companies of players, who performed not only privately in their lords' houses, but publicly under their license and protection.

Abuse soon flowed from this universal and unrestricted indulgence in the pleasures of the stage. The great inns, being converted into temporary theatres, became the scenes of much scandalous ribaldry and shameless dissipation ; of which Stow has left us a record in his Survey of London. Speaking of the stage he says, “ This, which was once a recreation, and used therefore now and then occasionally, afterward, by abuse, became a trade and calling, and so remains to this day. In those former days ingenious tradesmen and gentlemen's servants would sometimes gather a company of themselves, and learn interludes, to expose vice, or to represent the noble actions of our ancestors. These they played at festivals, in private houses, at weddings, or other entertainments ; but in process of time it became an occupation : and these plays being commonly acted on Sundays or festivals, the churches were forsaken, and the playhouses thronged. Great inns were used for this purpose, which had secret chambers and places, as well as open stages and galleries. Here maids and good citizens' children were inveigled and allured to private and unmeet contracts; here were publicly uttered popular and seditious matters, unchaste, uncomely, and shameful speeches, and many other enormities. The consideration of these things occasioned, in 1574, Sir James Hawes being mayor, an act of common council, in which it was ordained, That no play should be openly acted within the liberty of the city, wherein should be uttered any words, examples, or doings of any unchastity, sedition, or such-like unfit and uncomely matter, under the penalty of five pounds, and fourteen days' imprisonment : that no play should be acted till first permitted and allowed by the lord mayor and court of aldermen; with many other restrictions. But these orders were not so well observed as they should be; the lewd matters of plays increased, and they were thought dangerous to religion, the state, honesty, and manners, and also for infection in the time of sickness : wherefore they were afterward for some time totally suppressed ; but upon application to the queen and council

, they were again tolerated, under the following restrictions: That no plays be acted on Sundays at all, nor on any holyday till after evening prayer; that no playing be in the dark, nor continue any such time but as any of the auditors may return to their dwellings before sunset, or, at least, before it be dark, &c. But all these proscriptions were not sufficient to keep them within due bounds, but their plays, so abusive oftentimes of virtue, or particular persons, gave great offence, and occasioned many disturbances, when they were now and then stopped and prohibited.”

CHAPTER XXV.

English Drama, concluded.

“What's gone, and what's past help,

Should be past grief."-
“The players cannot keep counsel ;-this fellow will tell all."

Shakspeare. Soon after this period the stage recovered its credit, and rose to a higher pitch than ever. In 1603, the first year of King James's reign, a license was granted to Shakspeare and others, authorizing them to act plays, not only at their

4

usual house, the Globe, on the Bankside, but in any other part of the kingdom, during his majesty's pleasure. Now was the English theatre at the height of its glory and reputation. Dramatic authors of the first excellence and eminent actors equally abounded ; every year produced a number of new plays ; nay, so great was the passion for show or representation, that it was the fashion for the nobility to celebrate their weddings, birthdays, and other occasions of rejoicing, with masks and interludes, which were exhibited with surprising expense; the king, queen, and court frequently performing in those represented in the royal palaces, and all the nobility being actors in their own private houses.

This universal eagerness for theatrical productions continued during the whole reign of King James, and great part of Charles I., till puritanism, which had long opposed them as wicked and diabolical, at length obtained the upper hand, and finally effected a total suppression of all plays and playhouses. Their fate was thus decided on the 11th day of February, 1647, when an ordinance was issued, whereby all players, of every description, were declared to be rogues, and liable to be punished as such, by whipping and imprisonment; all the playhouses were directed to be pulled down and demolished; and a penalty of five shillings was imposed on every person who should be present at a dramatic entertainment. Of the several actors at that time employed in the theatres, the greater part went immediately into the army, and, as might be expected, took part with their sovereign, whose predilection for their profession had been shown in many instances previously to the open rupture between him and his people.

In the winter of 1648 the surviving dependants on the drama, urged by necessity, ventured again to act some plays at the Cockpit ; but were soon interrupted by the soldiers, who took them into custody in the midst of one of their performances, and committed them to prison ; after which ineffectual attempt, we hear no more of any public exhibition for some time. At particular festivals, however, they were allowed to divert the public at the Red Bull, and occasionally to entertain so.ne of the nobility at their country. houses ; but this was not always without interruption. A slender and precarious support was all that the unfortunate

Bb

« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »