« ZurückWeiter »
THE ENGLISH DRAMA AND STAGE
THE TIME OF SHAKESPEARE.
In order to make the reader acquainted with the origin of the English stage, such as Shakespeare found it when he became connected with it, it is necessary to mention that a miracle-play, or mystery (as it has been termed in modern times), is the oldest form of dramatic composition in our language. The stories of productions of this kind were derived from the Sacred Writings, from the pseudo-evangelium, or from the lives and legends of saints and martyrs.
Miracle-plays were common in London in the year 1170; and as early as 1119 the miracle-play of St. Katherine had been represented at Dunstaple. has been conjectured, and indeed in part established', that some of these performances were in French, as well as in Latin; and it was not until the reign of Edward III, that they were generally acted in English. We have three existing series of miracle-plays, all of which have been recently printed; the Towneley collection by the Surtees Club, and those known as the Coventry and Chester pageants by the Shakespeare Society. The Abbotsford Club has likewise printed, from a manuscript at Oxford, three detached miracle-plays which once, probably, formed a portion of
· See Hist. of Engl. Dram. Poetry and the Stage, vol. ii. p. 131.
a connected succession of productions of that class and description.
During about 300 years this species of theatrical entertainment seems to have flourished, often under the auspices of the clergy, who used it as the means of religious instruction ; but prior to the reign of Henry VI., a new kind of drama had become popular, which by writers of the time was denominated a moral, or moral play, and more recently a morality. It acquired this name from the nature and purpose of the representation, which usually conveyed a lesson for the better conduct of human life, the characters employed not being scriptural, as in miracle-plays, but allegorical, or symbolical. Miracle-plays continued to be represented long after moral plays were introduced, but from a remote date abstract impersonations had by degrees, not now easily traced, found their way into miracle-plays : thus, perhaps, moral plays, consisting only of such characters, grew out of them.
A very remarkable and interesting miracle-play, not founded upon the Sacred Writings, but upon a popular legend, and all the characters of which, with one exception, purport to be real personages, has recently been discovered in the library of Trinity College, Dublin, in a manuscript certainly as old as the later part of the reign of Edward IV.? It is perhaps the only specimen of the kind in our language; and as it was unknown to all who have hitherto written on the history of our ancient drama, it will not here be out of place to give some account of the incidents to which it relates, and of the persons concerned in them. The title of the piece, and the year in which the events are supposed to have occurred, are given at the close, where we are told that it is “The Play of the Blessed Sacramento,” and that the miracle to which it refers was wrought “in the forest of Arragon, in the famous city of Araclea, in the year of our Lord God 1461." There can be no doubt that the scene of action was imaginary, being fixed merely for the greater satisfaction of the spectators as to the reality of the occurrences, and as little that a legend of the kind was of a much older date than that assigned in the manuscript, which was probably near the time when the drama had been represented.
2 We are indebted for a correct transcript of the original to the zeal and kindness of Dr. J. H. Todd, V.P., R.S.A.
3 In another part of the manuscript it is called “The Play of the Conversion of Sir Jonathas, the Jew, by Miracle of the Blessed Sacrament;" but inferior Jews are converted, besides Sir Jonathas, who is the head of the tribe in the “ famous city of Araclea.”
In its form it closely resembles the miracle-plays which had their origin in Scripture-history, and one of the characters, that of the Saviour, common in productions of that class, is introduced into it: the rest of the personages engaged are five Jews, named Jonathas, Jason, Jasdon, Masphat, and Malchus; a Christian merchant called Aristorius, a bishop, Sir Isidore a priest, a physician from Brabant called “ Mr. Brundyche,” and Colle his servant 4. The plot relates to the purchase of the Eucharist by the Jews from Aristorius for 1001., under an assurance also that if they find its miraculous powers verified, they will become converts to Christianity. Aristorius, having possession of the key of the church, enters it secretly, takes away the Host, and sells it to the Jews. They put it to various tests and torments : they stab “ the cake” with their daggers, and it bleeds, while one of the Jews goes mad at the sight. They next attempt to nail it to a post, but the Jew who uses the hammer has his hand torn off; and here the doctor and his servant, Mr. Brundyche and Colle, make their appearance in order to attend the wounded Jew; but after a long comic scene between the quack and his man, highly illustrative of the manners of the time, they are driven out as impostors. The Jews then proceed to boil the Host, but the water turns blood-red, and, taking it out of the cauldron with pincers, they throw it into a blazing oven: the oven, after blood has run out “at the crannies," bursts asunder, and an image of the Saviour rising, he addresses the Jews, who are as good as their word, for they are converted on the spot. They kneel to the Christian bishop, and Aristorius having confessed his crime and declared his repentance, is forgiven after a suitable admonition, and a strict charge never again to buy or sell.
* This name may possibly throw some light on an obscure passage, in a letter dated about 1535, and quoted in “The History of Engl. Dram. Poetry, and the Stage,” I. 131, where a person of the name of Thomas Wylley informs Cromwell, Earl of Essex, that he had written a play in which a character called " Colle, clogger of Conscience,” was introduced, to the great offence of the Roman Catholic clergy.
This very singular and striking performance is opened, as was usual with miracle-plays, by two Vexillators, who explain the nature of the story about to be represented in alternate stanzas; and the whole performance is wound up by an epilogue from the bishop, enforcing the moral, which of course was intended to illustrate, and impress upon the audience, the divine origin of the doctrine of transubstantiation. Were it necessary to our design, and did space allow of it, we should be strongly tempted to introduce some characteristic extracts from this hitherto unseen production; but we must content ourselves with saying, that the language in several places appears to be older than the reign of Edward IV., or even of Henry VI., and that we might be disposed to carry back the original composition of the drama to the period of Wickliffe, and the Lollards.
It was not until the reign of Elizabeth that miracleplays were generally abandoned, but in some distant parts of the kingdom they were persevered with even till the time of James I. Miracle-plays, in fact, gradually gave way to moral plays, which presented more variety of situation and character; and moral plays in turn were superseded by a species of mixed drama, which
was strictly neither moral play nor historical play, but a combination of both in the same representation.
Of this singular union of discordant materials, no person who has hitherto written upon the history of our dramatic poetry has taken due notice; but it is very necessary not to pass it over, inasmuch as it may be said to have led ultimately to the introduction of tragedy, comedy, and history, as we now understand the terms, upon the boards of our public theatres. No blame for the omission can fairly be imputed to our predecessors, because the earliest specimens of this sort of mixed drama, which remain to us, have been brought to light within a comparatively few years. The most important of these is the “Kynge Johan” of Bishop Bale. We are not able to settle with precision the date when it was originally written, but it was evidently performed, with additions and alterations, after Elizabeth came to the throne”. The
The purpose of the author was to promote the Reformation, by applying to the circumstances of his own times the events of the reign of King John, when the kingdom was placed by the Pope under an interdict, and when, according to popular belief, the sovereign was poisoned by a draught
5 Bale died in Nov. 1563 ; but he is nevertheless thus spoken of, as still living, in B. Googe's “Eglogs, Epitaphes, and Sonnettes,” published, we have reason to believe, in the spring of that year: we have never seen this tribute quoted, and therefore subjoin it.
“Good aged Bale, that with thy hoary heares
With booke in hand to have thy dying daye.” Besides “ Kynge Johan,” Bale was the author of four extant dramatie productions, which may be looked upon as miracle-plays, both in their form and characters: viz. 1. “ The Three Laws of Nature, Moses and Christ;" 2."God's Promises ;" 3.“ John the Baptist ;" 4.“ The Temptation of Christ.” He also wrote fourteen other dramas of various kinds, none of which have come down to us.