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engross the whole commodity of censure; may lawfully presume to be a girder, and stand at the helm to steer the passage of scenes.
The passage in italics which closes this quotation, would seem to be decisive of the long agitated question relative to the use of scenery; Mr. Malone asserting,"that the stage of Shakspeare was not furnished with moveable painted scenes, but merely decorated with curtains, and arras or tapestry hangings, which, when decayed, appear to have been sometimes ornamented with pictures;" and Mr. Steevens contending, that where so much machinery as the plays of Shakspeare require, is allowed to have been employed, the less complicated adjunct of scenes could scarcely be wanting; for that where "the column is found standing, no one will suppose but that it was once accompanied by its usual entablature. short," he adds, "without characteristic discriminations of place, the historical dramas of Shakspeare in particular would have been wrapped in tenfold confusion and obscurity; nor could the spectator have felt the poet's power, or accompanied his rapid transitions from one situation to another, without such guides as painted canvas only could supply. But for these, or such assistances, the spectator, like Hamlet's mother, must have bent his gaze on mortifying vacancy; and with the guest invited by the Barmecide, in the Arabian tale, must have furnished from his own imagination the entertainment of which his eyes were solicited to partake."
If the machinery accompanying trap-doors, tombs, and cauldrons, the appearance of ghosts, phantoms, and monsters, the descent of gods, the magic evanishment of articles of furniture and provision, and the confliction of the elements, were not strangers to the Shakspearean theatre, it surely would have been an easy matter to have transferred the frame-work and painted canvas which, according to Holinshed, and even preceding chroniclers, decorated the pageants and tournaments of those days, to the business of the stage. Nor can we, indeed, conceive, as Mr. Steevens has remarked, how the minute inventory of Imogen's bedchamber, and the accurate description of the exterior of Inverness Castle, could have been rendered intelligible or endurable without such assistance.
It is highly probable, therefore, from these considerations, and from the passage in Decker, that, notwithstanding the mass of negative evidence collected by Mr. Malone, moveable painted scenes were occasionally introduced on the stage during the age of Shakspeare; and it may be further reasonably concluded, that, from the phrase of steering the passage of scenes," the mechanism was formed and conducted on a plan approximating that which is now familiar to a modern audience.
The conjecture of Mr. Steevens, however, that private theatres had no scenes, while the public had, owing to the former admitting part of the audience on the stage, who might interfere with the convenient shifting of such an apparatus, is annihilated by the quotation from Decker, who expressly says, that by sitting on the stage, you have a signed patent to stand at the helm to steer the passage of the scenes," by which it would appear, that those who obtained seats on the private stage, occasionally amused themselves by assisting the regular mechanists. in the adjustment of the scenery.
We learn, also, from Heywood, that the internal roof of the stage was either painted of a sky-blue colour, or hung with drapery of a similar tint, in order to represent the heavens; and there is much reason to suppose, with a very ingenious commentator, that when the idea of a gloomy and starless night was to be impressed, these heavens were hung with black, whence, among many passages in Shakspeare illustrative of this position, the following line manifestly owes its origin:
"Hung be the Heavens with black, yield day to night." +
Gull's Horn-book, p. 138.
Whiter's Specimen of a Commentary on Shakspeare, p. 157, 158.
It has, likewise, been asserted, and, indeed, to a certain extent, proved, by the same learned writer, that the lower part of the stage was distinguished by the name of Hell; and he quotes the annexed passage from Chapman as decisive on the subject:
"The fortune of a Stage (like fortune's self)
Amazeth greatest judgments: and none knows
That rise from this HELL, or fall from this HEAVEN.”
From this connection of the celestial and infernal regions with the stage, Mr. Whiter has inferred, through the medium of numerous pertinent quotations from Shakspeare and his contemporaries, that a vast mass of imagery was so blended and associated in the mind of our great poet, as to form an intimate union in his ideas between Hell and Night; the darkened Heavens and the Stage of Tragedy; and this, too, at an early period, even during the composition of his Rape of Lucrece, which contains some striking instances of this theatrical combination.
To these notices on the interior structure of the Shakspearean theatre, we shall now add the most material circumstances relative to its economy and usages.
The mode of announcing its exhibitions, if we except the medium of newspapers, a resource of subsequent times, seems to have been not less effectual and extensive than that of the present day. Playbills were printed, expressing the title of the piece or pieces to be performed, but containing neither the names of the characters nor of the actors; these were industriously circulated through the town and affixed to posts and public buildings, a custom which forms the subject of a repartee recorded by Taylor the water-poet, who began to write towards the close of Shakspeare's life:-"Master Field, the player," he relates, “riding up Fleet-street a great pace, a gentleman called him, and asked him, what play was played that day. He being angry to be staied on so frivolous a demand, answered, that he might see what play was plaied upon every poste. I cry you mercy, said the gentleman, I tooke you for a poste, you rode so fast."+
In the early part of the reign of Elizabeth, the Days of Acting, at the public theatres, were chiefly confined to Sundays, Her Majesty's license to Burbage in 1574, granting such exhibition on that day, out of the hours of prayer; and this was the day which the Queen herself usually selected for dramatic representation at court. The rapidly increasing taste, however, for theatric amusement soon induced the players to go beyond the limits of permission, and we find Gosson, in 1579, exclaiming, that the players, "because they are allowed to play every Sunday, make four or five Sundays, at least, every week." A reformation more consonant to morality and decorum took place in the subsequent reign; for, though plays were still performed on Sundays, at the court of James the First, yet they were no longer tolerated on that day at the public theatres, permission being now given, on application to the Master of the Revels, for their performance every day, save on the Sabbath, during the winter, and with no further exception than the Wednesdays and Fridays of Lent, which were at that time called sermon-days.
The Hours of Acting, during the whole period of Shakspeare's career, continued to be early in the afternoon. In 1598, we are informed by an epigram of
Whiter's Specimen of a Cominentary on Shakspeare, p. 178, 183; and see Prologue to All Fools, by Chapman, 1605. in Old Plays, vol. iv. p. 116.
Taylor's Works, p. 183-Mr Malone is of opinion that to these play-bills we owe "the long and whimsical titles which are prefixed to the quarto copies of our author's plays. It is indeed absurd to suppose, that the modest Shakspeare, who has more than once apologized for his untutored lines, should in his manuscripts have entitled any of his dramas most excellent and pleasant performances." Thus :"The most excellent Historie of the Merchant of Venice, 1600.”
"Amost pleasant and excellent conceited Comedie of Syr John Falstaffe and the Merry Wives of Windsor, 1602." "The late and much admired Play, called Pericles Prince of Tyre, 1609," &c. &c.
Sir John Davies, that one o'clock was the usual time for the commencement of the play :
"Fuscus doth rise at ten, and at eleven
He goes to Gyls, where he doth eat till one,
and, in 1609, when Decker published his Gull's Horn-book, the hour was thrown back to three, nor did it become later until towards the close of the seventeenth century. The time usually consumed in the exhibition appears, from the prologue to Henry the Eighth, to have been only two hours:
"Those that come
I'll undertake may see away their shilling
The mention of payment in this passage, leads to the consideration of the Prices of Admission, and the sum here specified, contemporary authority informs us, was demanded for entrance into the best rooms or boxes.* Sixpence also, and sometimes a shilling, was paid for seats or stools on the stage. Sixpence was likewise the price of admission to the pit and galleries of the Globe and Blackfriars; but at inferior houses, a penny, or at most two-pence, gave access to the "groundling," or the "gallery-commoner." Dramatic poets, as in the present day, were admitted gratis. We may also add, that, from some verses addressed to the memory of Ben Jonson, by Jasper Mayne, and alluding to his Volpone or the Fox, acted in 1605, it is allowable to infer, that the prices of admission were, on the first representation of a new play, doubled, and even sometimes trebled.
There is every reason to suppose, that while Shakspeare wrote for the stage, the number of plays performed in one day, seldom, if ever, exceeded one tragedy, comedy, or history, and that the entertainment was varied and protracted, either by the extempore humour and tricks of the Clown after the play was over, or by singing, dancing, or ludicrous recitation, between the acts.
The house appears to have been pretty well supplied with Lights; the stage being illuminated by two large branches; the body of the house by cresset lights, formed of ropes wreathed and pitched, and placed in open iron lanterns, and these were occasionally assisted by the interspersion of wax tapers among the boxes.
The Amusements of the Audience before the Play commenced seem to have been amply supplied by themselves, the only recreation provided by the theatre, during this tedious interval, being the music of the band, which struck up thrice, playing three flourishes, or, as they were then called, three soundings, before the performance began; but these were of course short, being principally intended as announcements, similar to those which we now receive from the prompter's bell. To kill time, therefore, reading and playing cards were the resources of the genteeler part of the audience: Before the play begins," says Decker to his gallant, "fall to cards; you may win or lose, as fencers do in a prize, and beat one another by confederacy, yet share the money when you meet at supper: notwithstanding, to gull the ragamuffins that stand aloof gaping at. you, throw the cards, having first torn four or five of them, round about the stage, just upon the third sound, as though you had lost."†
Of the less refined amusements of these gaping ragamuffins, "the youths that thunder at a play-house, and fight for bitter apples," we find numerous traces in Decker, Jonson, and their contemporaries, which enable us to assert, that they chiefly consisted in smoking tobacco, drinking ale, cracking nuts, and eating fruit, which were regularly supplied by men attending in the theatre, and whose vociferation and clamour, or, as a writer of that time expresses it, "to be made adder-deaf with pippin-cry," were justly considered as grievous nuisances; more especially the use of tobacco, which must have been intolerable to those unac* Decker's Gull's Horn-book, reprint, p. 18. note. Gull's Horn-book, reprint, p. 146.
Henry VIII. act v sc. 3.
customed to its odour, and, indeed, occasionally drew forth the execration of individuals thus in a work entitled, "Dyets Dry Dinner," we find the author commencing an epigram on the wanton and excessive use of tobacco, in the following terms:
The most rational of the amusements which occupied the impatient audience, was certainly that of reading, and this appears to have been supplied by a custom of hawking about new publications at the theatre; at least this may be inferred from the opening of an address to the public, prefixed by William Fennor, to a production of his, entitled "Descriptions," and published in 1616. Gentlemen readers, worthy gentlemen, of what degree soever, I suppose this pamphlet will hap into your hands, before a play begin, with the importunate clamour of "Buy a New Booke," by some needy companion, that will be glad to furnish you with worke for a turn'd teaster." +
As soon as the third sounding had finished, it was usual for the person whose province it was to speak the Prologue, immediately to enter. As a diffident and supplicatory manner were thought essential to this character, who is termed by Decker, "the quaking Prologue," it was the custom to clothe him in a long black velvet cloak, to which Shirley adds, a little beard, a starch'd face, and a supple leg.
On withdrawing the curtain, the stage was generally found strewed with rushes, which, in Shakspeare's time, as hath been already remarked formed the common covering of floors, from the palace to the cottage; but, on splendid occasions, it was matted entirely over; thus, Sir Henry Wotton, in a letter which describes the conflagration of the Globe Theatre, in 1613, says, that on the night of the accident, "the King's Players had a new play, called "All is true," representing some principal pieces of the reign of Henry the Eighth, which was set forth with many extraordinary circumstances of pomp and majesty, even to the matting of the stage.'
The performance of tragedy appears to have been attended with some peculiar preparations; one of which was hanging the stage with black, a practice which dwelt on Shakspeare's recollection when, in writing his Rape of Lucrece, he speaks of
"Black stage for tragedies, and murthers fell;" +
and is put out of dispute by a passage in the Induction to an anonymous tragedy, entitled, "A Warning for fair Women," 1599, where History, addressing Comedy, says:
"Look, Comedie, I mark'd it not till now,
to which Comedy replies:
Nay then, I see she shall be entertain'd;
"Dyets Dry Dinner consisting of eight several courses. 1. Fruites. 2. Hearbes. 3. Flesh. 4 Fish. 5. Whitmeats. 6. Spice. 7. Sauce. 8. Tabacco. All served in after the order of time universall. By Henry Buttes, Maister of Artes, and Fellowe of C.C. C. in C. London, 1599." Small 8vo.
Fennors Descriptions, or a true relation of certaine and divers speeches, spoken before the King and Queene's most excellent Majestie, the prince his highnesse, and the Lady Elizabeth's Grace. By William Fennor, his Majestie's Servant. London, 1616." 4to.
+ Malone's Supplement, vol. i. p. 517.-"The hanging, however, was," remarks the editor, "I suppose, no more than one piece of black baize placed at the back of the stage, in the room of the tapestry which was the common decoration when comedies were acted."
If the decorations of the stage itself could boast but little splendour, the wardrobe, even of the Globe and Blackfriars, could not be supposed either richly or amply furnished; in fact, even Jonson, in 1625, nine years after Shakspeare's death, betrays the poverty of the stage-dresses, when he exclaims in the Induction to his "Staple of News," "O curiosity, you come to see who wears the new suit to-day; whose clothes are best pen'd, etc.-what king plays without cuffs, and his queen without gloves: who rides post in stockings, and dances in boots.' It is evident, therefore, that the dramas of our great poet could derive little attraction from magnificence of attire, though it appears, from a passage in Jonson, that not only was there a prompter, or book-holder, but likewise a property, or tire-man, belonging to each theatre, in 1601. Periwigs, which came into fashion about 1596, were often worn on the stage by male characters, whence Hamlet is represented calling a ranting player, "a robustious periwig-pated fellow." (Act iii. sc. 2.) Masks or vizards were also sometimes used by those who personated female characters; thus Quince tells Flute, in the Midsummer Night's Dream, on his objecting to perform a woman's part, that he "shall play it in a mask." Act i. sc. 2.
Female characters, indeed, were on the old English stage, as they had been on the Grecian and Roman, always personated by men or boys, a practice which continued with us until near the period of the Restoration. Italy and France long preceded us in the introduction of women on the theatric boards; for Coryate writing from Venice in 1608, and describing one of the theatres of that city, says, "the house is very beggarly and base, in comparison of our stately play-houses in England;" and he then adds, what must give us a wretched idea of the state of the stage at that time in Italy, "neither can their actors compare with us for apparell, shewes, and musicke. Here," he continues, "I observed certaine things that I never saw before; for I saw women act, a thing that I never saw before."
The mode of expressing dislike of, or censuring a play, was as decided in the days of Shakspeare as in the present age, and sometimes effected by the same means. Decker gives us two methods of expressing disapprobation; one, by leaving the house with as many in your train as you can collect, the other, by staying, in order to interrupt the performance: "you shall disgrace him (the poet) worse," he observes, " than by tossing him in a blanket, or giving him the bastinado in a tavern, if, in the middle of his play, be it pastoral or comedy, moral or tragedy, you rise with a screwed and discontented face from your stool to be gone;" -and "salute all your gentle acquaintance, that are spread either on the rushes, or on stools about you:" and draw what troop you can from the stage after you:" but, "if either the company, or indisposition of the weather bind you to sit it out; -mew at passionate speeches; blare at merry; find fault with the musick; whew at the children's action; whistle at the songs;"S modes of annoyance sufficiently provoking, and occasionally very effectual toward the final condemnation of a play, as Ben Jonson experienced in more instances than one.**
It was usual also for the critics and coxcombs of the day, either from motives of curiosity, vanity, or malevolence, to carry to the theatre table-books, made of small plates of slate bound together in duodecimo, and to take down passages from the play, for the purpose either of retailing them in taverns and parties, or with the view of ridiculing and degrading the author; "to such, wherever they sit concealed," says the indignant Jonson in 1601, "let them know, the author defies them and their writing-tables."††
An Epilogue, sometimes spoken by one of the Dramatis Personæ, and some
* Whalley's Works of Ben Jonson; Prologue in Induction. Whalley's Jonson; Cynthia's Revels, Induction.
Gull's Horn-book, reprint, p. 147-149.
Sejanus, Catiline, and The New Inn, were all condemned.
Crudities, 4to, 1611, p. 247.
"There is reason to believe," remarks Mr. Malone," that the imperfect and mutilated copies of one or two of Shakspeare's dramas, which are yet extant, were taken down by the ear, or in short-hand, during the exhibition."