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the author was a man of talents, they were hardly such as could have produced“ Ralph Roister Doister."
The drama which we have been accustomed to regard as our oldest tragedy, and which probably has a just claim to the distinction, was acted on 18th January, 1562, and printed in 1565. It was originally called “Gorboduc;" but it was reprinted in 1571 under the title of “Forrex and Porrex," and a third time in 1590 as “Gorboduc." The first three acts were written by Thomas Norton, and the last two by Thomas Sackville, afterwards Earl of Dorset, and it was performed by the gentlemen of the Inner Temple." Although the form of the Greek drama is observed in Gorboduc," and each act concluded by a chorus, yet Sir Philip Sidney, who admitted in his “ Apology of Poetry") that it was “ full of stately speeches and well-sounding phrases," could not avoid complaining that the unities of time and place had been disregarded. Thus, in the very outset and origin of our stage, as regards what may be termed the regular drama, the liberty, which allowed full exercise to the imagination of the audience, and which was afterwards happily carried to a greater excess, was distinctly asserted and maintained. It is also to be remarked, that “Gorboduc" is the earliest known play in our language in which blank-verse was employed; but of the introduction of blank-verse upon our public stage, we shall have occasion to speak hereafter. It was an important change, which requires to be separately considered.
We have now entered upon the reign of Elizabeth; and although, as already observed, moral plays and even miracleplays were still acted, we shall soon see what a variety of subjects, taken from ancient history, from mythology, fable, and romance, were employed for the purposes of the drama.
1 In the Hist. of Engl. Dram. Poetry and the Stage, ii. 482, it is said that the earliest edition of “Gorboduc' has no date. This is a mistake, as is shown by the copy in the collection of Lord Francis Egerton, which has “anno 1565, Septemb. 22" at the bottom of the title-page. Mr. Hallam, in his admirable "Introduction to the Literature of Europe," &c. (Second Edit, vol, ii, p. 167), expresses his dissent from the position, that the three first acts were by Norton, and the two last by Sackville. The old title-page states, that "three acts were written by Thomas Norton, and the two last by Thomas Sackville." Unless the printer, William Griffith, were misinformed, this seems decisive. Norton's abilities have not had justice done to them.
2 Richard Edwards, a very distinguished dramatic poet, who died in 1566, and who wrote the lost play of “Palamon and Arcite," which was acted before the Queen in September of that year, did not follow the example of Sackville and Norton : his “Damon and Pithias" (the only piece by him that has survived) is in rhyme. See Modsley's Old Plays, last edition, vol. i. p. 177. Thomas Twine, an actor in Palamon and Arcite," wrote an epitaph upon
“Gammer Gurton's Needle," and "Gorboduc," (the last printed from the second edition) are also inserted in vols. i. and ii. of Dodsley's Old Plays.
Stephen Gosson, one of the earliest enemies of theatrical performances, writing his “ Plays confuted in Five Actions" a little after the period of which we are now speaking, but adverting to the drama as it had existed some years before, tells us, that “the Palace of Pleasure, the Golden Ass, the Æthiopian History, Amadis of France, and the Round Table, as well as a comedies in Latin, French, Italian, and Spanish, have been thoroughly ransacked to furnish the play-houses in London.” Hence, unquestionably, many of the materials of what is termed our romantic drama were obtained. The accounts of the Master of the Revels between 1570 and 1580 contain the names of various plays represented at court; and it is to be noted, that it was certainly the practice at a later date, and it was probably the practice at the time to which we are now adverting, to select for performance before the Queen such pieces as were most in favour with public audiences: consequently the mention of a few of the titles of productions represented before Elizabeth at Greenwich, Whitehall
, Richmond, or Nonesuch, will show the character of the popular performauces of the day. We derive the following names from Mr. P. Cunningham's “ Extracts from the Revels' Accounts,” printed for the Shakespeare Society :Lady Barbara.
Mutius Scævola. Iphigenia.
Portio and Demorantes. Ajax and Ulysses.
Titus and Gisippus. Narcissus.
Three Sisters of Mantua. Paris and Vienna.
Cruelty of a Stepinother. The Play of Fortune.
The Greek Maid. Alemæon.
Rape of the second Helen. Quintus Fabius.
The Four Sons of Fabius. Timoclea at the Siege of Thebes. History of Sarpedon. Perseus and Andromeda.
Murderous Michael. The Painter's Daughter. Scipio Africanus. The History of the Collier. The Duke of Milan.
The History of Error. These are only a few out of many dramas, establishing the multiplicity of sources to which the poets of the time resorted. Nevertheless, we find on the same indisputable authority, that moral plays were not yet altogether discarded in the court entertainments; for we read, in the original records, of productions the titles of which prove that they were pieces of_that allegorical description : among these are Truth, Faithfulness, and Mercy," and “The Marriage of Mind and Measure,” which is expressly called “a moral."
1 "The Play of Fortune,” in the above list, is doubtless the piece which has reached us in a printed shape, as "The Rare Triumphs of Love and Fortune :" it was acted at court as early as 1573, and again in 1582; but it did not come from the press until 1589, and the only copy of 'it is in the library of Lord Francis Egerton. The purpose of the anonymous writer was to compose an entertainment which should possess the great requisite of variety, with as much show as could at that early date be accomplished; and we are to recollect that the court theatres possessed some unusual facilities for the purpose. The “Induction" is in blank-verse, but the body of the drama is in rhyme. “The History of the Collier," also mentioned, was perhaps the comedy subse
Our main object in referring to these pieces has been to show the great diversity of subjects which had been dramatised before 1580. In 1581 Barnabe Rich published his "Farewell to Military Profession," consisting of a collection of eight novels; and at the close of the work he inserts this strange address "to the reader:”—“Now thou hast perused these histories to the end, I doubt not but thou wilt deem of them as they worthily deserve, and think such vanities more fitter to be presented on a stage (as some of them have been) than to be published in print.” The fact is, that three dramas are extant which more or less closely resemble three of Rich’s novels: one of them “ Twelfth Night;" another, “The Weakest goeth to the Wall," and the third the old play of “ Philotus."
Upon the manner in which the materials thus procured were then handled, we have several contemporaneous authorities. George Whetstone, (an author who has principally acquired celebrity by writing an earlier drama upon the incidents employed by Shakespeare in his “Measure for Measure”) in the dedication of his“ Promos and Cassandra,” gives a compendious description of the nature of popular theatrical representations in 1578. “The Englishman (he remarks) in this quality is most vain, indiscreet, and out of order. He first grounds his work on impossibilities; then, in three hours, runs he through the world, marries, gets children, makes children men, men to conquer kingdoms, murder monsters, and bringeth gods from heaven, and fetcheth devils from hell: and, that which is worst, their ground is not so unperfect as their working indiscreet; not weighing, so the people laugh, though they laugh them for their follies to scorn. Many times, to make mirth, they make a clown companion with a king: in their grave councils they allow the advice of fools; yea, they use one order quently known and printed as “Grim, the Collier of Croydon ;” and it has been reasonably supposed, that "The History of Error” was an old play on the same subject as Shakespeare's “ Comedy of Errors."
1 Until recently no edition of an earlier date than that of 1606 was known; but there is an impression of 1581 at Oxford, which is about to be reprinted by the Shakespeare Society. Malone had heard of a. copy in 1583. but it is certainly a mistake.
2 It was reprinted for the Bannatyne Club in 1835, by J. W. Mackenzie, Esq.
of speech for all persons, a gross indecorum.” This, it will be perceived, is an accurate account of the ordinary license taken in our romantic drama, and of the reliance of poets, long before the time of Shakespeare, upon the imaginations of their auditors.
To the same effect we may quote a work by Stephen Gosson, to which we have before been indebted,—“ Plays confuted in Five Actions,”—which must have been printed about 1580:-" If a true history (says Gosson) be taken in hand, it is made, like our shadows, longest at the rising and falling of the sun, shortest of all at high noon; for the poets drive it commonly unto such points, as may best show the majesty of their pen in tragical speeches, or set the hearers agog with discourses of love; or paint a few antics to fit their own humours with scoffs and taunts; or bring in a show, to furnish the stage when it is bare." Again, speaking of plays professedly founded upon romance, and not upon “true history," he remarks: “Sometimes you shall see nothing but the adventures of an amorous knight, passing from country to country for the love of his lady, encountering many a terrible monster, made of brown paper, and at his return is so wonderfully changed, that he cannot be known but by some posy in his tablet, or by a broken ring, or a handkerchief, or a piece of cockle-shell.”
We can hardly doubt that when Gosson wrote this passage he had particular productions in his mind, and several of the character he describes are still extant.
Sir Philip Sidney is believed to have written his “Apology of Poetry" in 1583, and we have already referred to it in connexion with “Gorboduc." His observations, upon the general character of dramatic representations in his time, throw much light on the state of the stage a very few years before Shakespeare is supposed to have quitted Stratford-upon-Avon, and attached himself to a theatrical company. “Our tragedies and comedies (says Sidney) are not without cause cried out against, observing neither rules of honest civility, nor skilful poetry. But if it be so in Gorboduc, how much more in all the rest, where you shall have Asia of the one side, and Afric of the other, and so many other under-kingdoms, that the player, when he comes in, must ever begin with telling where he is, or else the tale will not be conceived. Now you shall have three ladies walk to gather flowers, and then we must believe the stage to be a garden: by and by we hear news of a shipwreck in the same place; then, we are to blame if we accept it not for a rock. Upon the back of that comes out a hideous monster with fire and smoke, and then the miserable beholders are bound to take it for a cave; while, in
the meantime, two armies-fly in, represented with four swords and bucklers, and then what hard heart will not receive it for a pitched field! Now, of time they are much more liberal; for ordinary it is that two young princes fall in love: after many traverses she is got with child, delivered of a fair boy; he is lost, groweth a man, falleth in love, and is ready to get another child, and all this in two hours? space: which how absurd it is in sense, even sense may imagine, and art hath taught, and all ancient examples justified.” He afterwards comes to a point previously urged by Whetstone; for Sidney complains that plays were “neither right tragedies nor right comedies, mingling kings and clowns, not because the matter so carrieth it, but thrust in the clown by head and shoulders, to play a part in majestical matters with neither decency nor discretion; so as neither the admiration and commiseration, nor right sportfulness is by their mongrel tragi-comedy obtained."
It will be remarked that, with the exception of the instance of “Gorboduc," no writer we have had occasion to cite mentions the English Chronicles, as having yet furnished dramatists with stories for the stage; and we may perhaps infer that resort was not had to them, for the purposes of the public theatres, until after the date of which we are now speaking
Having thus briefly adverted to the nature and character of dramatic representations from the earliest times to the year 1583, and having established that our romantic drama was of ancient origin, it is necessary shortly to describe the circumstances under which plays were at different early periods performed.
There were no regular theatres, or buildings permanently constructed for the purposes of the drama, until after 1575. Miracle-plays were sometimes exhibited in churches and in the halls of corporations, but more frequently upon moveable stages, or scaffolds, erected in the open air. Moral plays were subsequently performed under nearly similar circumstances, excepting that a practice had grown up, among the nobility and wealthier gentry, of having dramatic entertainments at particular seasons in their own residences.' These were sometimes performed by a company of actors retained in the family, and sometimes by itinerant players,
1 As early as 1465 a company of players had performed at the wedding of a person of the name of Molines, who was nearly related to Sir John Howard, afterwards Duke of Norfolk. See “ Manners and Household Expenses of England," printed by Mr. Botfield, M. P., for the Roxburghe Club in 1841, p. 511.
The anonymous MS. play of “Sir Thomas More," written towards the close of the reign of Elizabeth, gives a very correct notion of the mode in which offers to perform were made by a company of players,