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draught of a regular tragedy and comedy that appeared, Lord Sackville's Gorboduc, and Still's Gammer Gurton's Needle, were not produced till within the latter half of the sixteenth century, and but little more than twenty years previous to Shakspeare's arrival in the metropolis.
About that time, the attention of the public began to be more generally directed to the stage; and it throve admirably beneath the cheerful beams of popularity. The theatrical performances which had, in the early part of the reign of Elizabeth, been exhibited on temporary stages, erected in such halls or apartments as the actors could procure, or, more generally, in the yards of the great inns, while the spectators surveyed them from the surrounding windows and galleries, began to be established in more convenient and permanent situations. About the year 1569, a regular playhouse, under the appropriate name of The Theatre was built. It is supposed to have stood somewhere in Blackfriars; and three years after the commencement of this establishment, yielding to her inclination for the amusements of the theatre, and disregarding the remonstrances of the Puritans, the queen granted license and authority to the Servants of the Earl of Leicester, “to use, exercise, and occupie the arte and facultie of playinge comedies, tragedies, interludes, stage-playes, as well for the recreation of our lovinge subjects, as for our solace and pleasure, when we shall thinke good to see them, throughoute our realme of England.” From this time, the number of theatres increased with the ripening taste and the increasing demands of the people. Various noblemen had their respective companies of performers, who were associated as their servants, and acted under their protection; and during the period of Shakspeare's theatrical career, not less than seven principal play-houses were open in the metropolis.
Of these the Globe, and the play-house in Blackfriars, were the property of the company to which Shakspeare was himself attached, and by whom all his productions were exhibited. The Globe appears to have been a wooden building, of a considerable size, hexagonal without, and circular within; it was thatched in part, but a large portion of the
roof was open to the weather. This was the company's summer theatre; and the plays were acted by daylight: at the Blackfriars, on the contrary, which was the winter theatre, the top was entirely closed, and the performances were exhibited by candle-light. In every other respect, the economy and usages of these houses appear to have been the same, and to have resembled those of every other contemporary theatre.
With respect to the interior arrangements, there were very few points of difference between our modern theatres and those of the days of Shakspeare. The terms of admission, indeed, were considerably cheaper; to the boxes the entrance was a shilling, to the pit and galleries only sixpence. Sixpence, also, was the price paid for tools upon the stage; and these seats, as we learn from Decker's Gull's Hornbook, were peculiarly affected by the wits and critics at the time. The conduct of the audience was less restrained by the sense of public decorum, and smoking tobacco, playing at cards, eating and drinking, were generally prevalent among them: the hour of performance also was earlier ; the play beginning at first at one, and afterwards at three o'clock, in the afternoon. During the time of representation, a flag was unfurled at the top of the theatre; and the floor of the stage (as was the case with every floor at the time, from the cottage to the palace) was strewn with rushes. But in other respects, the ancient theatres seem to have been nearly similar to those of modern times: they had their pit, where the inferior class of spectators — the groundlings — vented their clamorous censure or approbation ; they had their boxes, and even their. private boxes, of which the right of exclusive admission was hired by the night, for the more wealthy and refined portion of the audience; and there were again the galleries, or scaffolds above the boxes, for those who were content to purchase inferior accommodations at a cheaper rate. On the stage, the arrangements appear to have been nearly the same as at present—the curtain divided the audience from the actors; which, at the third sounding, not indeed of the bell, but of the trumpet, was drawn for the commencement of the performance. Malone has puzzled himself and his readers, in
in his account of the ancient theatre, by the supposition that there was a permanent elevation of about nine feet, at the back of the stage, from which, in many of the old plays, part of the dialogue was spoken; and that there was a private box on each side of this platform. Such an arrangement would have precluded the possibility of all theatrical illusion; and it seems an extraordinary place to fix upon as a station for spectators, where they could have seen nothing but the backs and trains of the performers. But as Malone himself acknowledges the spot to have been inconvenient, and that “it is not very easy to ascertain the precise situation where these boxes were;" it may be presumed, from our knowledge of the good sense of our forefathers, that, if indeed such boxes existed at all, they certainly were not where the historian of the English stage has placed them. Malone was possessed with an opinion, that the use of scenes was unknown in the early years of our national drama, and he was perhaps not unwilling to adopt such a theory respecting the distribution of the stage as would effectually preclude the supposition that such aids to the imagination of the audience had ever been employed. That he was in error respecting the want of painted scenery, I cannot help suspecting, even against the high authority of Mr. Gifford.
As to his permanent platform, or upper stage, he may, or may not, be correct in his opinion; all that is certain upon this subject is, that his quotations do not authorize the conclusion that he has deduced from them; and only prove that in the old, as in the modern theatre, when the actor was to speak from a window, or appear upon a balcony, or on the walls of a fortress, the requisite ingenuity was wanting to contrive an adequate representation of the place. But, with regard to the use of scenery, it is scarcely possible, from the very circumstances of the case, that such a contrivance should have escaped our ancestors. All the materials were ready to their hands; they had not to invent for themselves, but to adapt an old invention to their own purposes: and at a time when every better apartment was adorned with tapestry; when even the rooms of the commonest taverns were hung with painted cloths; while all the essentials of scenery were continually before their eyes, we can hardly believe our forefathers to have been so deficient in ingenuity, as to suppose that they never could have conceived the design of converting the common ornaments of their walls into the decorations of their theatres. But, the fact appears to be, that the use of scenery was almost coexistent with the introduction of dramatic representations in this country. In the Chester Mysteries, written in 1268, and which are the most ancient and complete collection of the kind that we possess, we have the following stage direction : “Then Noe shall go into the arke with all his familye, his wife excepte. The arke must be boarded round about, and upon the bordes all the beastes and fowles hereafter rehearsed must be painted, that their wordes may agree with the pictures.” In this passage, then, is a distinct reference to a painted scene; and it is not likely, that in the lapse of three centuries, while all other arts were in a state of rapid improvement, and the art of dramatic writing perhaps more rapidly and successfully improved than any other, the art of theatrical decoration should have alone stood still. It is not improbable that their scenes were few; and that these were varied as occasion might require, by the introduction of different pieces of stage furniture. Mr. Gifford, who adheres to Malone's opinion, says, "a table with a pen and ink thrust in, signified that the stage was a counting-house; if these were withdrawn, and two stools put in their places, it was then a tavern;” and this might be perfectly satisfactory, as long as the business of the play was supposed to be passing within doors; but when it was removed to the open air, such meagre devices would no longer be sufficient to guide the imagination of the audience, and some new method must have been adopted to indicate the place of action. After giving the subject considerable attention, I cannot help thinking that Steevens was right in rejecting the evidence of Malone, strong as it may in some instances appear; and concluding that the spectators were, as at the present day, assisted in. following the progress of the story, by means of painted and movable scenery. This opinion is confirmed by the ancient stage directions. In the folio Shakspeare, of 1623, we read, “ Enter Brutus, in his orchard.” “Enter Timon, in the
woods." “Enter Timon, from his cave.” In Coriolanus: “Marcius follows them to the gates, and is shut in.” Innumerable instances of the same kind might be cited, to prove that the ancient stage was not so defective in the necessary decorations as some antiquarians of great authority would represent. “It may be added,” says Steevens, “that the dialogue of Shakspeare has such perpetual reference to objects supposed visible to the audience, that the want of scenery could not have failed to render many of the descriptions uttered by the speakers absurd and laughable. Banquo examines the outside of Iverness castle with such minuteness, that he distinguishes even the nests which the martins had built under the projecting parts of its roof. Romeo, standing in a gar points to the tops of fruit-trees gilded by the moon. The prologue speaker to the Second Part of King Henry IV., expressly shows the spectators, “ this wormeaten hold of ragged stone,” in which Northumberland was lodged. Iachimo takes the most exact inventory of every article in Imogen's bed-chamber, from the silk and silver of which her tapestry was wrought, down to the Cupids that support her andirons. Had not the inside of this apartment, with its proper furniture, been represented, how ridiculous must the action of Iachimo have appeared! He must have stood looking out of the room for the particulars supposed to be visible within it. In one of the parts of King Henry VI., a cannon is discharged against a tower; and conversations are held in almost every scene from different walls, turrets, and battlements.” Indeed, must not all the humor of the mock play in the Midsummer Night's Dream have failed in its intent, unless the audience before whom it was performed were accustomed to be gratified by the combination of all the embellishments requisite to give effect to a dramatic representation, and could therefore estimate the absurdity of those shallow contrivances, and mean substitutes for scenery, which were devised by the ignorance of the clowns ?
In only one respeet do I perceive any material difference between the mode of representation at the time of Shakspeare and at present. In his day, the female parts were performed by boys: this custom, which must in many cases