Sidor som bilder

founded on the story of the massacre of the Danes, as it happened on St. Brice's night, November 13th, 10022. The play in question was performed by certain men of Coventry, among the other shows and entertainments at Kenilworth Castle in July, 1575, prepared for Queen Elizabeth; and this the rather, "because the matter mentioneth how valiantly our English women, for the love of their country, behaved


The writer, whose words are here quoted3, hath given a short description of the performance; which seems on that occasion to have been without recitation or rhymes, and reduced to mere dumb-show; consisting of violent skirmishes and encounters, first between Danish and English, "lanceknights on horseback," armed with spear and shield; and afterwards between "hosts" of footmen: which at length ended in the Danes being "beaten down, overcome, and many led captive by our English women 4."

This play, it seems, which was wont to be exhibited in their city yearly, and which had been of great antiquity and long continuance there 5, had of late been suppressed, at the instance of some well-meaning but precise preachers, of whose "sourness" herein the townsmen complain; urging that their play was "without example of ill manners, pa

2 Not 1012, as printed in Laneham's letter, mentioned below.

3 Ro. Laneham, whose LETTER, containing a full description of the Shows, &c. is reprinted at large in Nichols's "Progresses of Queen Elizabeth," &c., vol. i. 4to. 1788. That writer's orthography being peculiar and affected, is not here followed.

Laneham describes this play of hock Tuesday, which was "presented in an historical cue by certain good-hearted men of Coventry," (p. 32,) and which was "wont to be play'd in their citie yearly," (p. 33,) as if it were peculiar to them, terming it "THEIR old storial show," (p. 32.) And so it might be as represented and expressed by them "after their manner," (p. 33,) although we are also told by Bevil Higgons, that St. Brice's Eve was still celebrated by the northern English in commemoration of this massacre of the Danes, the women beating brass instruments, and singing old rhymes, in praise of their cruel ancestors. See his Short View of Eng. History, 8vo. p. 17. (The Preface is dated 1734.)

[blocks in formation]

pistry, or any superstition 6;" which shows it to have been entirely distinct from a religious Mystery. But having been discontinued, and, as appears from the narrative, taken up of a sudden after the sports were begun, the players apparently had not been able to recover the old rhymes, or to procure new ones, to accompany the action; which, if it originally represented "the outrage and importable insolency of the Danes, the grievous complaint of Huna, King Ethelred's chieftain in wars7:" his counselling and contriving the plot to dispatch them; concluding with the conflicts above mentioned, and their final suppression, "expressed in actions and rhymes" after their manners, one can hardly conceive a more regular model of a complete drama, and if taken up soon after the event, it must have been the earliest of the kind in Europe9.

[ocr errors]

Whatever this old play, or "storial show 10,' was at the time it was exhibited to Queen Elizabeth, it had probably our young Shakspeare for a spectator, who was then in his twelfth year, and doubtless attended with all the inhabitants of the surrounding country at these "princely pleasures of Kenelworth1," whence Stratford is only a few miles distant. And as the queen was much diverted with the Coventry Play, "whereat Her Majesty laught well," and rewarded the performers with two bucks, and five marks in money: who, "what rejoicing upon their ample reward, and what triumphing upon the good acceptance, vaunted their Play was never so dignified, nor ever any Players before so beatified:" but especially if our young bard afterwards gained admittance into the castle to see a Play, which the same evening, after supper, was there "presented of a very good theme, but so set forth by the actors' well-handling, that pleasure and

6 Laneham, p. 33.

7 Ibid. p. 32.

8 Ibid. p. 33.

9 The rhymes, &c., prove this play to have been in English; whereas Mr. Thomas Warton thinks the Mysteries composed before 1328 were in Latin. Malone's Shaksp. vol. ii. pt. ii. p. 9.

10 Laneham, p. 32.

1 See Nichols's Progresses, vol. i. p. 57.

mirth made it seem very short, though it lasted two good hours and more 2," we may imagine what an impression was made on his infant mind. Indeed, the dramatic cast of many parts of that superb entertainment, which continued nineteen days, and was the most splendid of the kind ever attempted in this kingdom; the addresses to the queen in the personated characters of a Sybille, a Savage Man, and Sylvanus, as she approached or departed from the castle; and, on the water, by Arion, a Triton, or the Lady of the Lake, must have had a very great effect on a young imagination, whose dramatic powers were hereafter to astonish the world.

But that the Historical Play was considered by our old writers, and by Shakspeare himself, as distinct from Tragedy and Comedy, appears from numberless passages of their works. "Of late days," says Stow, "instead of those Stage-Playes hath been used Comedies, Tragedies, Enterludes, and HISTORIES, both true and fayned.” — Survey of London. Beaumont and Fletcher, in the prologue to The Captain, say,

"This is nor Comedy, nor Tragedy,


Polonius in hamlet commends the actors, as the best in the world, "either for Tragedie, Comedie, Historie, Pastorall," &c. And Shakspeare's friends, Heminge and Condell, in the first folio edition of his Plays, in 16235, have not only entitled their book "Mr. William Shakespeare's Comedies, HISTORIES, and Tragedies," but in their table of contents have arranged them under those three several heads; placing in the class of Histories, "King John, Richard II., Henry IV. two parts, Henry V., Henry VI. three parts, Richard III., and Henry VIII.;" to which they might have added such of

2 Laneham, p. 38, 39. This was on Sunday evening, July 9.
3 The Creation of the World, acted at Skinners-well in 1409.

4 See Stow's Survey of London, 1603, 4to. p. 94, (said in the title page to be "written in 1598.") See also Warton's Observations on Spenser, vol. ii. p. 109.

5 The same distinction is continued in the 2d and 3d folios, &c.

his other Plays as have their subjects taken from the old Chronicles, or Plutarch's Lives.

Although Shakspeare is found not to have been the first who invented this species of drama6, yet he cultivated it with such superior success, and threw upon this simple inartificial tissue of scenes such a blaze of genius, that his HISTORIES maintain their ground in defiance of Aristotle and all the critics of the classic school, and will ever continue to interest and instruct an English audience.

Before Shakspeare wrote, Historical Plays do not appear to have attained this distinction, being not mentioned in Queen Elizabeth's licence, in 15747, to James Burbage and others, who are only empowered "to use, exercyse, and occupie the arte and facultye of playenge Comedies, Tragedies, Enterludes, Stage-Playes, and such other like." But when Shakspeare's HISTORIES had become the ornaments of the stage, they were considered by the public, and by himself, as a formal and necessary species, and are thenceforth so distinguished in public instruments. They are particularly inserted in the licence granted by King James I. in 16038 to W. Shakspeare himself, and the Players his fellows, who are authorised "to use and exercise the arte and faculty of playing Comedies, Tragedies, HISTORIES, Interludes, Morals, Pastorals, Stage-Plaies, and such like." The same merited distinction they continued to maintain after his death, till the theatre itself was extinguished; for they are expressly mentioned in a warrant in 1622, for licensing certain "late Comedians of Queen Anne deceased, to bring up children in the qualitie and exercise of playing Comedies, Histories, Interludes, Morals, Pastorals, StagePlaies, and such like9." The same appears in an admoni

6 See Malone's Shaksp. vol. i. part ii. p. 31.

7 See Malone's Shaksp. vol. i. part ii. p. 37. 8 Ibid. vol. i. part ii. p. 40.

9 Ibid. p. 49. Here Histories, or Historical Plays, are found totally to have excluded the mention of Tragedies; a proof of their superior popularity. In an order for the king's comedians to attend King Charles I. in his summer's progress, 1636 (ibid. p. 144), Histories are not particularly men

tion issued in 163710, by Philip Earl of Pembroke and Montgomery, then Lord Chamberlain, to the Master and Wardens of the Company of Printers and Stationers; wherein is set forth the complaint of His Majesty's servants the Players, that "diverse of their books of Comedyes and Tragedies, CHRONICLE-HISTORYES, and the like," had been printed and published to their prejudice, &c.

This distinction, we see, prevailed for near half a century; but after the Restoration, when the Stage revived for the entertainment of a new race of auditors, many of whom had been exiled in France, and formed their taste from the French theatre, Shakspeare's HISTORIES appear to have been no longer relished; at least the distinction respecting them is dropt in the patents that were immediately granted after the king's return.

This appears, not only from the allowance to Mr. William Beeston, in June 16601, to use the house in Salisbury Court "for a Play-house, wherein Comedies, Tragedies, Tragi-Comedies, Pastoralls, and Interludes, may be acted,” but also from the fuller grant (dated August 21, 1670)2, to Thomas Killigrew, Esq. and Sir William Davenant, Knight, by which they have authority to erect two companies of players, and to fit up two theatres "for the representation of Tragydies, Comedyes, Playes, Operas, and all other entertainments of that nature."

But while Shakspeare was the favourite dramatic poet, his HISTORIES had such superior merit, that he might well claim to be the chief, if not the only historic dramatist that kept possession of the English stage; which gives a strong support to the tradition mentioned by Gildon3, that, in a conversation with Ben Jonson, our bard vindicated his Historical Plays, by urging, that as he had found "the nation

tioned; but so neither are Tragedies: they being briefly directed to "act Playes, Comedyes, and Interludes, without any lett," &c.

10 Ibid. p. 139.

1 This is believed to be the date by Mr. Malone, vol. ii. part ii. p. 239. 2 Malone, vol. ii. pt. ii. p. 244. 3 Ibid. vol. vi. p. 427.

« FöregåendeFortsätt »