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grandest dramatic school which forms the chief literary glory of the reigns of Elizabeth and James I.
It is singular to remark that, while the theatres of this period were of the rudest construction, and the appliances for producing the illusion of the scene were yet in a most imperfect state, the dramatic profession should have numbered in its ranks men who carried their art to a pitch of splendour which succeeding ages have neither equalled nor approached. It seems as though the very insufficiency of the material contrivances only tended to make these great men rely upon their own genius to produce im. pressions upon the imagination of their audience, more vivid and intense than the rude theatre of the time could hope to make upon their senses.
The actors of this time, who were in many cases dramatic authors also, generally associated themselves into a sort of joint-stock company, and either travelled about the country, performing in the houses of the nobility, and for the amusement of the people on temporary stages in the yards of inns, or established themselves in some of the numerous theatres of London. These latter buildings, though erected expressly for the performance of plays, retained many peculiarities traceable to the custom of acting in inns. They were uncovered, excepting over the stage; and the scenery, if it deserve the name, was of the rudest description, and consisted generally, till the time of Davenant at the Restoration, of nothing but a few curtains of tapestry or painted canvas, suspended so as to give the actors the power of making their exit and entrance, as if into a room, square, forest, street, &c.
As the Elizabethan dramas are remarkable for the frequent supposed changes of scene which take place in them, the spot presented to the audience was indicated by the simplest expedient; a placard was fixed to one of the curtains, bearing the name of the city or country supposed, and this placard was changed for another at a change of scene : if, for example, the action was to be imagined in Padua, an inscription with the word “Padua” was suspended in view of the audience; should the scene be supposed to take place in a palace, a throne and canopy, called a
state,” would be pushed forward ; if in a bed-chamber, a bed was introduced ; if in a tavern, the production of a table with bottles and glasses upon it--if in a court, a combination of the “state," with a table bearing pens and ink, were all that was necessary to give the hint or suggestion to the imaginative minds of an Elizabethan audience. We know, from innumerable passages of the old dramatists, that it was customary for the “gallants," dandies, or raffinés of the period, to sit during the performance on chairs placed on the stage in full view of the audience, smoking their pipes and exhibiting the splendour of their dress, and scrupling not to criticise aloud the drama which was going for
ward—a circumstance which must have still further injured the probability of the scene. At the back of the stage was erected a species of balcony or scaffolding of various platforms, on which appeared the persons who were supposed to speak from a window, from the wall of a besieged city, and so forth ; and there were also permanent projections in various parts of the stage, behind which the actors might retire, in order unobserved to overhear and see what was going on-a dramatic expedient so much used in the theatre of every country and period.
It must not be forgotten, by any one who desires to form a correct idea of the Elizabethan stage, that the female parts were acted by boys, no woman having appeared as a performer in England until the Restoration, when the possibility that the other sex could represent fictitious characters seems first to have been demonstrated in Italy, from whence the example was rapidly followed in England and elsewhere. This circumstance is calculated to immeasurably increase our wonder and admiration at Shakspeare's genius, the profoundest, most delicate, and most inimitable of whose delineations are often his female characters, and who has never fallen into that coarseness of allusion and indulgence in double entendre which defiles the scenes of even the greatest of his illustrious contemporaries. Mean as was the scenery of the Elizabethan theatre, it would be an error to suppose that the dresses were in the same degree poor and unvaried. The actors appear to have exhibited great splendour of personal decoration, wearing, in plays of all ages and countries, the costume of their own time and nation--a costume, however, the anachronisms of which were not likely to have greatly shocked the uncritical audiences of the day. It is true that the universal employment, on the stage, of a contemporary costume has led many of the authors into the commission of trifling breaches of chronological or geographical correctness, giving, in Massinger, watches to Spartan senators, and arming Romans with the Spanish rapier of the sixteenth century; but, after all, the importance of such errors is in general much over-rated by the critics, and they make but little impression upon the truly imaginative and excitable spectator, who seldom stops to verify dates and judge the niceties of costume. Be this as it may, the manly, graceful, and splendid costume of the reign of Elizabeth appears to have been generally employed, as it still is retained (in our opinion with great propriety) in all those plays of imaginative character, the scene and age of whose supposed action are incapable of being strictly assigned and particularised.
The literary and even the personal career of most of the great dramatists of this period is in many respects so much the same, and also tends in so great a degree to throw light upon the true
character of their works, that we will make a few general remarks on this subject before entering into any critical or biographical details : by so doing also we hope to give a clearer notion of the condition of our national stage at this vigorous and brilliant period of its existence. The immortal men who have illustrated this portion of our literature were, in a great majority of cases, persons of academical education-in some instances, as in those of Ben Jonson and Chapman, they were distinguished for their learning, even in a learned age. In a multitude of instances, too, they were young men of violent passions and desperate fortune, who rushed up to the capital from their academic retirement of Oxford or Cambridge, and thought to find in the theatre the source of a turbid and rapid glory, and perhaps the means for indulging, with little exertion to themselves, in the riotous pleasures of the town, elevated the while by the spirit of freedom and intellect which prevailed in the theatrical circle. They almost all of them began their career as actors, and it is to this circumstance that we must attribute some of the peculiar excellences of their way of writing. It made them consummate masters of what is called “stage-effect,” the art of placing their characters in the most striking and picturesque situations, though at the same time it tended to increase that taste for violent exaggeration and inconsistent passion which forms one of their evident defects. They were not calm, contemplative scholars, building up, in the silence of their study, structures of elaborate and artificial character; but men-active, suffering, enjoying men; who had mingled in the serious business of life, and painted its smiles and its tears, its grandeur and its littleness, from incessant and personal observation. They wrote, too, for an audience eager for novelty, thirsting and hungering for strong, true passion-an audience composed, not of the court, but of the body of the people. On reading the dramas of this period we cannot understand how human sensibilities could bear the shock of such terrible pathos as we find in these wonderful works—agony piled upon agony till it becomes almost too powerful when read; what then must it have been when represented with all the graces of delivery! The truth is, that “there were giants in those days,” and the spectators cared not how painfully their sympathies were awakened, provided they were moved strongly, naturally, and directly.
The language, too, in which these terrible or playful scenes were written, was a medium admirably suited to the purpose and to the time: it was in the highest degree rich, varied, tender, and majestic; adorned with all the graces of classical imagery, but without a trace of pedantry or formality. The great object of these writers was Passion; as Dignity had been the principal aim of the Greek dramatists. They therefore directed all their
efforts to the faithful delineation of Nature, and made their scene a true mirror of Life itself, mingling the grave and the merry, the serious and the comic, in the same play, the same scene, and even in the same speech. And thus they have produced a constellation of immortal works, which, like the creations of the greatest among them all, “ were not for an age, but for all time;" and which, notwithstanding the great and grievous faults with which their excellences are contrasted, will be read with still increasing ardour and admiration through age after age, because in them Art has been but the interpreter and handmaid of Nature !
MARLOW AND SHAKSPEARE.
Marlow: his Career and Works-His Faustus-His Death--Contemporary Judg
ments on his Genius. Shakspeare: His Birth, Education, and Early Life-Traditions respecting him--His Marriage--Early Studies--Goes to London-His Career--Death and Monument--Order of his Works--Roman Plays-- His Diction--Characters.
The remark which we made in the preceding chapter respecting the general character and career of the great dramatists of the Elizabethan era will be found to apply so universally as to render it unnecessary for us to give biographical details of individuals whose life was, for the most part, a constant alternation of squalid poverty and of temporary success.
The profession of playwright at the period we are considering was held in but low esteem; in fact, was not raised in any perceptible degree above the occupation of the actor. It will be found, indeed, that most of the great authors we are speaking of were themselves actors, as well as writers for the stage; and this circumstance undoubtedly tended to give to their productions some of those peculiarities which so strongly distinguish this school of dramatists from any other which ever existed in the world. The peculiarities so communicated were, as might naturally be expected, both good and evil. Writing for an audience of the most miscellaneous character, and addressing themselves at the same time to the learned and the ignorant, to the refined and to the illiterate, they were obliged to seek for matter adapted to every taste; now gratifying the most elegant tastes of the courtly and scholarlike noble, and then, in the same play-osten in the same scene-tickling the coarser fancy of the rude and jovial artisan. It is in some measure, therefore, to the popularity of the drama as a favourite amusement, at this period, of all ranks, that we owe much of what is most grand, most airy, and most romantic, in the Elizabethan theatre, and also, it cannot be denied, a good deal of the irregularity that characterises these wonderful compositions--their strange mixture of elevated passion and mean buffoonery ; much of their sublimity, and much also of their mean
It should be carefully borne in mind that the above remarks apply universally (though of course not in the same degree or proportion) to all the dramatists of the Shaksperian or Elizabethan school, some being more distinguished for pathos, some for sublimity, others for sweetness of fancy and a “Sicilian fruitfulness” of beautiful diction and harmony. Passing, therefore, over John Lyly, the affected euphuist and fantastical innovator on the language of the court, but whose dramas are distinguished by an exquisite grace and Grecian purity of construction, and whose songs in particular are models of airiness and music, we come to Peele, Nash, Greene, and Lodge, the immediate predecessors of Marlow, who was himself, so to speak, the forerunner and herald of Shakspeare.
The luxuriant fancy of his ‘David and Bethsabé,' and the kingly amplification of his · Edward I.,' would have given Peele's name no mean place on the national Parnassus; the “gall and salt” of Nash's vigorous satire would have preserved his memory in the admiration of his country ; Greene's “happy talent, clear spirit, and lively imagination” would have saved him from that oblivion whence his works are seldom recalled but by the painful commentator on Shakspeare; and the romantic spirit and woodland freshness of Lodge's graceful muse might have earned him a lasting niche in "Fame's proud temple." But all these bright intellects were quenched and swallowed up in the immeasurable splendour of their great successor. At noon we know, as well as at midnight, the stars are in the sky, but we can only see them in the absence of the sun.
The dates of the birth and death of the above dramatists are as follows:-Lyly, born 1554, died some time after 1600; George Peele, a fellow-actor and shareholder with Shakspeare in the Blackfriars Theatre, died before 1599; Nash, born in Suffolk, 1564, and died, “after a life spent,” as he pathetically says himself, “in fantastical satirism, in whose veins heretofore I misspent my spirit, and prodigally conspired against good hours," also about 1600; Greene died in 1592; and Lodge, who at the end of his life is supposed to have renounced the stage, and become a physician of eminence, is reported to have died in London of the plague in 1625.