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HISTORY

OF

THE ENGLISH DRAMA AND STAGE

TO

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. It 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 miracleplays, 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 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

1 See Hist. of Engl Dram. Poetry and the Stage, vol. č. p. 131.

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 Sacramenta," 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.

In its form it closely resembles the miracle-plays which had their origin in Scripture-history, and one of the charac ters, 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".

1 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.

2 In another part of the manuscript it is called “The Play of the Conversion of Sir Jonathas, the Jew, by the 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."

3 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

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