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William Shakespeare began his theatrical career. There is a story that his first occupation in London was holding horses at the play-house door; but it was not heard of until the middle of the last century, and is unworthy of serious attention.
Theatres had increased rapidly in London during the few years preceding Shakespeare's arrival. Not long before that time public acting was confined almost entirely to the court-yards of large inns, or to temporary stages which were erected in the open air or in booths; although sometimes the use of a large hall was obtained by the generosity of a nobleman or a corporation, or that of a churchyard, or even a church, by the paid connivance of the rector. The public authorities, more especially those who were inclined to Puritanism, exerted themselves in every possible way to repress the performance of plays and interludes. They fined and imprisoned the players, even stocked them, and harassed and restrained them to the utmost of their ability. But, like all such restrictive, persecuting folk, they began their work at the wrong end to warrant any hope of its accomplishment. They punished the players when they should have disciplined the public. Had they been able to root out the taste for dramatic entertainment, and checked the demand for it, they might have let the poor players go quietly on with their performances, sure that they would
soon come to an end. But the taste grew into a fierce appetite, and pervaded all classes of society; and the supply of the needful food was an inevitable necessity. The strait-laced aldermen of London would neither be mollified by the art of the player nor learn sufficient wisdom from experience to devote their energies to regulating that which they could not stop; and in 1575 the players were interdicted from the practice of their art (or rather their calling, for it was not yet an art) within the limits of the city.
Among the men who suffered from this new ordinance was James Burbadge, a Warwickshire
He is said to have been a carpenter; but he added to the gains of his craft what he could get as one of a cry of players; and mayhap, like that other artisan actor, Nick Bottom, he had “simply the best wit of any handy-craft-man” in his city. Certainly whatever wit he had was put to good use; for, as he could not play in London, he determined to play just outside of it, and to use his skill as a carpenter in building that then unheard of thing in England, a play-house. Borrowing the good round sum of £600 from a rich father-in-law, he leased a plot of ground and the buildings upon it in the suburb of Shoreditch for twenty-one years, with the privilege of putting up a theatre; and partly by altering, partly by building, as we have seen under similar circumstances in New York, he soon had his play-house
finished. And thus the oppression of an artisan player caused the erection, in 1575, of the First English Theatre, - indeed the first modern theatre; for, setting aside the ruined structures of antiquity, in no other country at this time had there been built a house for the especial purpose of dramatic performances. Burbadge's house was called inevitably “The Theatre.” It had no other name; and no other was needed. The enterprising dramatic carpenter's venture proved so profitable, that, resolving, like a Yankee showman of world-wide notoriety, to be his own opposition, he built within a year another theatre in Moorfields, which he called “The Curtain”; and to these two he added, in 1576, a third, destined to immortal fame. This was in the liberties of the late dissolved monastery of the Blackfriars. Like “The Theatre," it was constructed by the alteration of dwelling-houses. Its site is now in the heart of London, near Printing-House Square; and even then, though outside the city proper, it was one of the most thickly-built quarters of the town, and one inhabited by the better sort of folk, and even by the nobility. These people, aided by the Mayor of London, did all they could to get the Privy Council to forbid the erection of the new theatre in their elegant and orderly neighborhood. But it is worthy of special notice that all this aristocratic and high official influence failed of the object to which it was directed. The love
of the whole people for the drama was too strong and too vivid in its manifestation to make it politic, even in those days of arbitrary power, to restrict that individual liberty of which our race is so jealous, in favor of the few who were averse to stage plays or annoyed by the surroundings of a play-house. In 1586 the houses above named were the principal theatres of London ; but there were three or four other buildings, near the bank of the river, one of which was called “The Rose,” which were used by players, tumblers, mountebanks, and bear-baiters promiscuously. Paris Garden, which some time afterward became a theatre, was entirely devoted to the cruel sports of the baiting ring.
These theatres were occupied by companies of players, each of which was under the patronage and protection of some distinguished nobleman. The most esteemed of these companies were the Queen's, the Earl of Leicester's, the Lord Admiral's (Earl of Nottingham), the Earl of Pembroke's, the Earl of Sussex's, and the Children of the Royal Chapel and of St. Paul's. The company which played at the Blackfriars, and of which James Burbadge was the leading man, was the Earl of Leicester's. This company had played at Stratford several times in Shakespeare's boyhood. The playwrights whose works were then most in vogue, and who were all attached to one or other of these companies, and were actors of
more or less repute, were George Peele, Robert Greene, Christopher Marlowe, John Lyly, Thomas Kyd, Thomas Nashe, Thomas Lodge, Henry Chettle, and Anthony Munday. Of these only the first four possessed any marked superiority over their fellows; and of the four only Marlowe's pen obtained for him any other place in the world's memory than that of having been a contemporary of Shakespeare.
Tradition and the custom of the time concur in assuring us that Shakespeare's first connection with the stage was as an actor; and an actor he continued to be for twenty years or more.
But although Aubrey tells us that "he did act exceeding well,” he seems never to have risen high in this profession. Betterton, or perhaps Rowe, heard that the top of his performance was the Ghost in his own Hamlet; and Oldys tells a story, that one of his younger brothers, who lived to a great age, being questioned as to William, said that he remembered having seen him act the part, in one of his own comedies, of a long-bearded, decrepit old man, who was supported by another person to a table, where they sat among other company, one of whom sang a song. If this were true, Shakespeare played Adam in As You Like It. And it is consistent with all that we know of him that he should play such parts as this and the Ghost, which required judgment and intelligent reading rather than passion and lively simulation.