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Children as Singers- Shakespeare's Musical Stage-directions-
IN the Shakespearian theatre the performances generally began at three o'clock in the afternoon, and the prices of admission varied from twopence to about sixpence to the pit, and from about a shilling to half a crown to the boxes. The musicians sat in a balcony and not in front of the stage as is the present custom. Many of the ultra-fashionables sat or reclined upon the stage itself, for which privilege they paid extra. In judging of the vocal music which Shakespeare introduced in his plays, it may be important to remember that every part was sung by men or boys, no female appearing upon the English stage before the civil war. The treble parts were sustained by boys who were well trained for acting as well as singing. Regarding these children and their singing, we can quote Shakespeare himself, for he gives a criticism of their work in the second scene of the second act of "Hamlet:'
"Rosencrantz. To think, my lord, if you delight not in man, what lenten entertainment the players shall receive from you: we coted them on the way; and hither are they coming, to offer you service.
Hamlet. He that plays the king, shall be welcome; his majesty shall have tribute of me: the adventurous knight shall use his foil and target: the lover shall not sigh gratis; the humourous man shall end his part in peace; the clown shall make those laugh, whose lungs are tickled o' the sere; and the lady shall say her mind freely, or the blank verse shall halt for 't. What players are they?
Rosencrantz. Even those you were wont to take such delight in, the tragedians of the city.
Hamlet. How chances it, they travel? their residence, both in reputation and profit, was better both ways.
Rosencrantz. I think their inhibition comes by the means of the late innovation.
Hamlet. Do they hold the same estimation they did when I was in the city? Are they so followed?
Rosencrantz. No, indeed they are not.
Hamlet. How comes it? Do they grow rusty?
Rosencrantz. Nay, their endeavour keeps in the wonted pace: but there is, sir, an aiery of children, little eyases, that cry out on the top of question, and are most tyrannically clapped for 't: these are now the fashion; and so berattle the common stages, (so they call them,) that many, wearing rapiers, are afraid of goose quills, and dare scarce come thither.
Hamlet. What, are they children? who maintains them? how are they escoted? Will they pursue the quality no longer than they can sing? will they not say afterwards, if they should grow themselves to common players, (as it is most like, if their means are no better) their writers do them wrong, to make them exclaim against their own succession.
Rosencrantz. Faith, there has been much to do on both sides; and the nation holds it no sin, to tarre them on to con
troversy; there was for awhile, no money bid for argument, unless the poet and the player went to cuffs in the question. Hamlet. Is it possible?
Guildenstern. O, there has been much throwing about of
Do the boys carry it away?
Rosencrantz. Ay, that they do, my lord; Hercules and his load too."
It would seem evident from this that Shakespeare scarcely approved of children as actors, and he intimates that the boys are only tolerated because they can sing; the line, "Will they pursue the quality no longer than they can sing?" would seem to indicate that when their voice changed they might be regarded as useless. That the children sometimes gave plays by themselves is also indicated in the above scene, but is not to our purpose; we may suppose, since these juvenile performances were given by the choir-boys of St. Paul's, Westminster, the Chapel Royal, etc., that the singing was the important part.
All performances of this epoch were preceded by three flourishes of trumpets, exactly as the Wagnerian performances at Bayreuth have been ushered in during more recent times. After the third flourish the curtain was drawn to the two sides, from the center, and the prologue was spoken. The so-called "Chorus," was, of course, not a musical gathering, but a single character who explained the play, after the manner of the ancient Greek choruses, although the Hellenic
chorus chanted, while the Elizabethan one merely spoke his lines.
Between the acts dancing and singing, or both combined, were introduced. After the play the clown came to the front and gave a jig, generally to his own accompaniment upon pipe or tabor. Sometimes he had an accompaniment played for him, in which case he generally sang as he danced. A clear instance of this sort can be found in "Twelfth Night," after the play is ended, when the clown enters and sings the following:
When that I was and a tiny little boy,
For the rain it raineth every day.
But when I came to man's estate,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
But when I came, alas! to wive,
But when I came unto my bed,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
A great while ago the world begun,
Here we have a song entirely apart from the action. Shakespeare had made this clown especially musical and had probably chosen some capable singer for the part, for he not only gives the character a prominent share in the catch-singing, but adds earnest songs to its repertoire during the play. He possibly, therefore, desired something a little better than the usual jig at the end, in this case, and gave the clown an additional chance to capture public favour with his final song. It is, however, as extraneous to the action as the jig itself would have been.
Some commentators believe the song to be by some other hand than Shakespeare's, and there is inherent probability in the belief; for it may have been allowed to the favoured actor to choose some favourite song of his own repertoire wherewith to capture his audiBesides this assumption, we find an additional bit of inferential proof in the fact that Shakespeare parodied the song in "King Lear" (written a halfdozen years later) with
“He that has a little tiny wit,
With heigh, ho, the wind and the rain,