« AnteriorContinuar »
banished poetry and the sister arts from works of Shakspere, made me this question,” England ; and dramatic poetry, especially, &c.* When the London theatres were prowas proscribed by a blind fanaticism, wholly vided with novelties in such abundance that, and irredeemably, without discrimination according to Prynne, “one study was scarce between its elevating and its debasing in- able to hold the new play-books,” the plays fluence upon the public morals. Milton of Sha pere were still in such demand for himself had left “a calm and pleasing soli- the purposes of the stage, that his successors tariness, fed with cheerful and confident in the theatrical property of the Globe and thoughts, to embark in a troubled sea of Blackfriars found it their interest to prenoises and hoarse disputes." Let us retrace serve the monopoly of their performance our steps, and glance a little at the prelude (which they had so long enjoyed), by a to this period.
handsome gratuity to the Master of the In 1633 was published the celebrated Revels. There is this entry in the office* Histrio-Mastix, the Player's Scourge,' of book of Sir Henry Herbert, in 1627: “ReWilliam Prynne. In the epistle dedicatory ceived from Mr. Heming, in their company's to the benchers of Lincoln's Inn, he says, name, to forbid the playing of Shakespeare's that about seven years before he had set plays to the Red Bull Company, five pounds." down all the play-condemning passages The people clearly had not yet forgotten the which he recollected in the Fathers and “delight and wonder of the stage.” Fletcher, other authors, and that he had since enlarged Massinger, Shirley, were newer favourites ; the intended bulk of this discourse, “because but the people could not forget Shakspere. I saw the numbers of players, play-books, Neither was he forgotten by the great. In play-haunters, and play-houses still increas- the very year of the publication of Prynne's ing, there being above forty thousand play- book-when St. James's and Whitehall were books printed within these two years, as brilliant with the splendid revelries of an stationers inform me.” In his address to elegant court, and the queen herself took the Christian reader he has a distinct allu- part in the masques and pageantries,—the sion to the popularity of Shakspere's col- indecent allusion to which cost Prynne his lected works : “Some play-books since I first ears—the name of Shakspere was as familiar undertook this subject are grown from quarto to the royal circle as in the days of James. into folio, which yet bear so good a price From the seventeenth of November to the and sale, that I cannot but with grief relate sixth of January, there were eight perit, they are now new printed in far better formances at St. James's and Whitehall, paper than most octavo or quarto bibles, three of which were plays of Shakspere : which hardly find such vent as they.” The namely, Richard III., Taming of the Shrew, two folio editions of Shakspere are the only and Cymbeline; and Sir Henry Herbert play-books grown from quarto to folio to records of the last, “well liked by the which the zealous puritan can allude, with king.”+ These office accounts have great the exception of Jonson's own edition of his lacunce ; but, wherever we find them during plays, completed in 1631 ; those of Beau- the reign of Charles, there we find a record mont and Fletcher were not collected till of the admiration of Shakspere. 1647. The very fact of the publication of Dryden lived near enough to the times of the first two folios of Shakspere is a proof of Charles I. to be good evidence as to the his popularity with general readers. They judgment which the higher circles formed of were not exclusively the studies of the Shakspere ; after the Restoration he was scholar, such as Milton, or of the play- intimate with men who had moved in those haunters whom Prynne denounces. A letter circles. His Essay on Dramatic Poesy,' in the Bodleian Library, written by a Dr. | which was first printed in 1668, contains the James, about this period, testifies how generally they were read : “A young gentle
* See Mr. Halliwell's Character of Falstaff," p. 19.
+ See Malone's • Historical Account of the English lady of your acquaintance, having read the Stage.
following passage, which has been often verenced Shakspere. He tells us what was cited. Dryden is speaking in his own per- the opinion of “ Mr. Hales of Eton.” John son, in an imaginary conversation in which Hales, a Fellow of Eton, is known as the the Earl of Dorset bears a part : “ To begin, “ learned” Hales, and the “ever-memorable" then, with Shakspeare. He was the man Hales ; and of him, Aubrey says,
· When who of all modern, and perhaps ancient the court was at Windsor the learned courpoets, had the largest and most compre- tiers much delighted in his company." His hensive soul. All the images of nature were opinion of Shakspere is given with more still present to him, and he drew them not particularity by Gildon, in an Essay adlaboriously, but luckily: when he describes dressed to Dryden in 1694, in which he anything, you more than see it, you feel it appeals to Dryden himself as the relator of too. Those who accuse him to have wanted the anecdote. It is not because Gildon is learning give him the greater commenda- satirized in. The Dunciad' that his veracity tion: he was naturally learned ; he needed is to be questioned * :-“But to give the not the spectacles of books to read nature ; world some satisfaction that Shakspeare has he looked inwards, and found her there. I had as great veneration paid his excellence cannot say he is everywhere alike ; were he by men of unquestioned parts as this I so, I should do him injury to compare him now express for him, I shall give some acwith the greatest of mankind. He is many count of what I have heard from your mouth, times flat, insipid, his comic wit degenerating Sir, about the noble triumph he gained over into clenches, his serious swelling into bom- all the ancients, by the judgment of the bast. But he is always great when some ablest critics of that time. The matter of great occasion is presented to him ; no man fact, if my memory fail me not, was this. can say he ever had a fit subject for his wit, Mr. Hales of Eton affirmed, that he would and did not then raise himself as high above show all the poets of antiquity outdone by the rest of the poets,
Shakspeare, in all the topics and common
places made use of in poetry. The enemies “Quantum lenta solent inter viburna cupressi.'
of Shakspeare would by no means yield him The consideration of this made Mr. Hales of so much excellence; so that it came to a Eton say, that there was 'no subject of resolution of a trial of skill upon that subwhich any poet ever writ, but he would pro-ject. The place agreed on for the dispute duce it much better done in Shakspeare ;' was Mr. Hales's chamber at Eton. A great and, however others are now generally pre- many books were sent down by the enemies ferred before him, yet the age wherein he of this poet; and on the appointed day my lived, which had contemporaries with him, Lord Falkland, Sir John Suckling, and all Fletcher and Jonson, never equalled them the persons of quality that bad wit and to , him in their esteem : and in the last | learning, and interested themselves in the king's court, when Ben's reputation was at quarrel, met there ; and upon a thorough highest, Sir John Suckling, and with him disquisition of the point, the judges chosen the greater part of the courtiers, set our by agreement out of this learned and inShakspeare far above him.” No testimony genious assembly, unanimously gave the can be more positive than this, that the two preference to Shakspeare, and the Greek and greatest contemporaries of Shakspere never Roman poets were adjudged to veil at least equalled him in the public estimation during their glory in that to the English hero." his own time ; and that in the succeeding From the death of Shakspere to the shutperiod of Charles I., when the reputation of ting up of the theatres in 1642, a period is Jonson was at the highest, Suckling, one of embraced of twenty-six years. We have seen the wittiest and sprightliest of men, and the the prodigious activity in the production greater part of the courtiers, set Shakspere of novelties which existed ten years before far above him. But it was not the gay the suppression of the theatres. There is alone, according to Dryden, who thus re- * See Gifford's Memoirs of Jonson,'p. ocks.
too much reason to know that the stage them to stand, and some other few things, had acquired a more licentious tone after but in the greater part allowed of my reShakspere's time; and although the puritans formations. This was done upon a complaint were over-zealous in their indiscriminating of Mr. Endymion Porter's, in December. The violence against all theatrical performances, king is pleased to take faith, death, slight, for there is just cause to believe that the senses asseverations, and no oaths, to which I do of the people were stimulated by excitements humbly submit as my master's judgment; of plot and character, mingled with profane but under favour conceive them to be oaths, and licentious language, much more thin and enter them here, to declare my opinion in the days when Shakspere rested for his and submission.” But it was not the striking attractions on a large exhibition of natural out of the asseveration, or even of the oaths, passion and true wit; and when he produced which could purify the plays of that period. play after play, history, comedy, tragedy- Their principal demoralizing power consisted “ works truly excellent and capable of en- | in their false representations of human chalarging the understanding, warming and pu- racter and actions. Take for example “the rifying the heart, and placing in the centre frightful contrasts," as they have justly been of the whole being the germs of noble and called, between the women of Beaumont and manlike actions.' The nation was much | Fletcher and those of Shakspere. He kept divided then, as it was long afterwards, at all times in the high road of life. He between the followers of extreme opinions “has no innocent adulteries, no interesting in morals—the over-strict on one hand, the incests, no virtuous vice; he never renders wholly careless on the other. Prynne tells that amiable which religion and reason alike us that, upon his first arrival in London, he teach us to detest, or clothes impurity in the had “heard and seen in four several plays, garb of virtue, like Beaumont and Fletcher, to which the pressing importunity of some the Kotzebues of the day.”
But this very ill acquaintance drew me whiles I was yet truth and purity of Shakspere must have a novice, such wickedness, such lewdness, greatly diminished his attractions, amidst a as then made my penitent heart to loathe, crowd who wrote upon opposite principles. my conscience to abhor, all stage-plays ever Nothing but the unequalled strength of his since." Prynne left Oxford and came to artistical power could have preserved the London after 1620. Fletcher was then the unbroken continuance of his supremacy. living idol of the theatre; and any one who And this leads us to the consideration of is acquainted with his plays, full of genius another cause why the popular admiration as they are, must admit that Prynne had too of him would have been diminished and inmuch cause for his disgust. In the office- terrupted within a very few years after his book of Sir Henry Herbert, in 1633, we find death, and certainly long before the suppresthe following curious entry: The comedy sion of the theatres, if his excellences had called "The Young Admiral,' being free from not so completely triumphed over every oaths, profaneness, or obsceneness, hath given impediment to his enduring popular fame. me much delight and satisfaction in the His plays were to a certain extent mixed up reading, and may serve for a pattern to with the reputation of the actors by whom other poets." The play was Shirley's. But they were originally represented. In that six months after there is a still more curious curious play "The Return from Parnassus, entry in the same book : “ This morning, which was acted by the students in St. John's being the 9th of January, 1633 [1634), the College, Cambridge, in 1606, and which was king was pleased to call me into his with clearly written by an academical person drawing chamber to the window, where he inclined to satirize the popular poets and went over all that I had crossed in Davenant's players of his day, Kempe is thus made to play-book, and, allowing of faith and slight to address two scholars who want lessons in be asseverations only and no oaths, marked the histrionic art : “ Be merry, my lads ; * Coleridge.
* Coleridge's Literary Remains,' vol. ij. p. 79.
you have happened upon the most excellent own, but the stain of all other nations and vocation in the world for money; they come languages; for it may be boldly averred, not north and south to bring it to our playhouse; one indiscretion hath branded this paper in and for honours, who of more report than all the lines, this being the authentic wit Dick Burbage and Will Kempe? He is not that made Blackfriars an academy, where the counted a gentleman that knows not Dick three hours' spectacle, while Beaumont and Burbage and Will Kempe : there 's not a Fletcher were presented, was usually of more country wench that can dance Sellenger's advantage to the hopeful young heir, than Round, but can talk of Dick Burbage and a “costly, dangerous, foreign travel, with the Will Kempe.” Here we have a testimony assistance of a governing monsieur or signer to the wide-spread popularity of two of the to boot; and it cannot be denied but that the original representatives of Shakspere’s clowns young spirits of the time, whose birth and and heroes. Kempe died before Shakspere; quality made them impatient of the sourer Burbage within three years after him. ways of education, have, from the attentive Burbage is almost identified with some of hearing these pieces, got ground in point of Shakspere's greatest characters, and espe- wit and carriage of the most severely em- i cially with Richard III.; and yet the at- ployed students, while these recreations were traction of the great tragic plays died not digested into rules, and the very pleasure with Burbage. Before the suppression of did edify. How many passable discoursing the theatres this actor had his immediate dining wits stand yet in good credit, upon successors; and during the eighteen years in the bare stock of two or three of these single which the theatres were closed, the original scenes!" This is a low estimate of the power hits and points of the Richards, and Hamlets, and capacity of the drama; and one which and Macbeths, and Lears, were diligently re- is a sufficient evidence of a declining taste corded; and immediately after the Restora- amongst those who were perforce contented tion actors again arose, ambitious to realize with reading plays during the silence of the mighty conceptions of the great master the stage. From “ the greatest monument of the dramatic art. During the period when of the scene that time and humanity have the theatres were shut, the readers of plays produced," was to be learned what was of would still be numerous, and they probably more advantage “than a costly, dangerous, would be most found among the younger foreign travel.” Hence were to be acquired men who had a vivid recollection of the re- “wit and carriage," and "dining wits stand: presentations of the successors of Shakspere. yet in good credit” by passing off the reWe can understand what the later taste was, partees of these dramatists as their own. by the mode in which Shirley, in his pre- | Shirley knew the character of those whoun face to the collated edition of Beaumont and he addressed in this preface. In the conFletcher, in 1647, speaks of these writers:- tentions of that tragical age few of the se“Whom but to mention is to throw a cloud rious thinkers would open a play-book at all." upon all former names, and benight posterity; To the gay cavaliers, Beaumont and Fletcher this book being, without flattery, the greatest would perhaps be more welcome than Shakmonument of the scene that time and hu- spere; and Shirley tells us the grounds upon manity have produced, and must live, not which they were to be admired. only the crown and sole reputation of our / suredly this is not oblivion of Shakspere.
The theatres were thrown open at the of his own documents, for, when he gives us one Restoration. Malone, in his "Historical list, he points out that there are only three Account of the English Stage,' informs us, plays of Shakspere—"a melancholy proof” of that, “in the latter end of the year 1659, his decline; and at another list he shakes his some months before the restoration of King head, reciting “the following plays of ShakCharles II., the theatres, which had been speare, and these only.” Now it appears to us suppressed during the usurpation, began to that, if any proof were wanting of the wonrevive, and several plays were performed at derful hold which Shakspere had taken of the the Red Bull in St. John's Street, in that English mind, under circumstances the most and the following years, before the return of adverse to his continued popularity, it would the King." He then adds, that in June, be found in these imperfect lists, which do 1660, three companies seem to have been not extend over more than eight or nine formed, including that of the Red Bull; and years. Here are absolutely fourteen plays of he enters into a history of the contests Shakspere revived—for that is the phrasebetween the Master of the Revels, and in an age which was prolific of its own Killigrew and Davenant, who had received authors, adapting themselves to a new school a patent from the king for the exclusive of courtly taste. All the indirect testimony, performance of dramatic entertainments. It however meagre, exhibits the enduring popuis scarcely necessary for us to pursue the larity of Shakspere. Killigrew's new theatre details of this contest, which, as is well in Drury Lane is opened with Henry IV. known, terminated in the permanent esta- Within a few months after the. Restoration, blishment of two theatres only in London. when heading and hanging are going forward, Malone has ransacked the very irregular Pepys relates that he went to see "Othello.' series of papers connected with the office of In 1661, he is attracted by“Romeo and Juliet;' Sir Henry Herbert, who appears to have kept and, in 1662, we have an entry in his diary, an eye upon theatrical performances with a with his famous criticism : “To the King's view to demanding his fees if he should be Theatre, where we saw Midsummer's Night's supported by the higher powers. From Dream,' which I had never seen before, nor these, and other sources, such as the List of shall ever again, for it is the most insipid Downes, the prompter of the principal plays ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life.” acted by Killigrew's company, Malone infers, Here, upon unquestionable authority, we that “such was the lamentable taste of have a fifteenth play added to the fourteen those times that the plays of Fletcher, previously cited. But why need we search Jonson, and Shirley were much oftener ex- amongst such chance entries for evidence of hibited than those of Shakspere.” The plays the reputation of Shakspere immediately acted by this company, as he collects from after the Restoration? Those who talk of these documents, were 'Henry IV.,''Merry Shakspere as emerging some century ago into Wives of Windsor,''Othello,' and 'Julius celebrity after having fallen into neglect for Cæsar.' At Davenant's theatre, which boasted a lengthened period ; those who flippantly of the great actor Betterton, we learn, from affirm, that “the preface of Pope was the Malone, that the plays performed were 'Pe- first thing that procured general admiration ricles,' 'Macbeth,' The Tempest,' 'Lear,' for his works,” are singularly ignorant of ‘Hamlet,’ ‘Romeo and Juliet,' 'Henry VIII,' the commonest passages of literary history. "Twelfth Night,"Taming of the Shrew,''Henry To the vague and random assertions and V.' Malone does not do justice to the value assumptions, whether old or new, about the