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THE INFANCY OF THE ENGLISH DRAMA.
6. Our acquaintance with the English literature of this agitated time is not complete, until we have learned something as to the progress then made by the Drama. This department of poetry has been left almost unnoticed in the previous sections of our studies; because there did not then arise in it any thing which possessed literary merit deserving of commemoration. But it had existed among us, as in every other country of Europe, from a very early date; and its history now calls for a hasty retrospect.
The dramatic exhibitions of the middle ages, if they did not take their origin in the church, were at all events speedily appropriated by the clergy. They had invariably a religious cast ; many of them were composed by priests and monks ; convents were very frequently the places in which they were performed ; and ecclesiastics were to be found not seldom among the actors. These facts are differently commented on by different critics. Here it is enough for us to know, that, through the extreme popularity of the drama in those rude and primitive forms, the mass of the people, during many generations, probably owed to it the chief acquaintance which they were permitted to attain with biblical and legendary history.
All the old religious plays are by some writers described under the name of Mysteries. When they are narrowly examined, it is found that they may be distributed into two classes. The first, which was also the earliest, contained the Miracles or MiraclePlays. These were founded on the narratives of the Bible or on the legends of the saints. To the second class belonged the Moralities, Morals, or Moral-Plays, which gradually arose out of the former by the increasing introduction of imaginary features. They were properly distinguished by taking abstract or allegorical beings as their personages; and by having their stories purposely so constructed as to convey ethical or religious lessons.
Some of the Miracle-Plays are of a very cumbrous size and texture, treating all the principal events of the Bible-history, from the Creation to the Day of Judgment. Such pieces were acted on festivals, the performance lasting for more days than one. There have been preserved three sets of them; the oldest of which was probably put together in the middle of the thirteenth century, and was acted at Chester, every Whitsunday, for many generations, under the superintendence of the mayor of the city. In plays of both kinds, the prevalent tone is serious, and not infrequently very solemn. Not only, however, are the most sacred
objects treated with undue freedom, but passages of the broadest and coarsest mirth are interspersed, apparently with the design of keeping alive the attention of the rude and uninstructed audience. The Moral-Plays had a character called Iniquity or the Vice, whose avowed function was buffoonery: he is alluded to by Shakspeare. Dramas of this sort, becoming common in England about the time of Henry the Sixth, were afterwards much more numerous than the Miracle-Plays, but without ever driving them entirely from the field. In one of the oldest and simplest of the Morals, the chief personage is called “ Every-Man," and of course represents Mankind. Being summoned by Death, he in vain endeavours to obtain, on his long journey, the companionship of such friends as Kindred, Fellowship, Goods, and Good-Deeds : and he is, in the end, deserted by Knowledge, Strength, Discretion, Beauty, and Five-Wits, who had at first consented to attend him.
In the later middle ages, the distinction between the two kinds of works was often lost. Allegorical characters found their way into pieces which in their main outline were Miracle-Plays: and the Moral-Plays began to present personages who, whether historical or invented, had no emblematic significance.
7. We are now in a fit position for remarking the changes which took place after the beginning of the sixteenth century. The old plays, in both of their kinds, still kept their place: nor were they quite overthrown by the Reformation. For the Chester plays were publicly acted, in part at least, in the year 1577. Skelton, who has already become known to us, has recorded that in his younger days, he wrote Miracle-Plays; and there were printed two Moralities of his, “ Magnificence” and “The Necromancer.” A more respectable contributor to the drama was the learned and pugnacious Protestant Bishop Bale. Obliged to fly from England on the fall of his first patron Cromwell, he employed some part of the leisure forced on him by his exile, in the composition of several Miracle-Plays, all of which were intended for instructing the people in the errors and abuses of Popery and in the distinctive tenets of the Reformation. Their chief merit consists in their being almost entirely free from the levities which degrade other works of the kind : and they scarcely seem, now, to possess a literary excellence justifying the satisfaction they gave to their venerable author, who has carefully enumerated them in his own list of his works.
There were, however, from the beginning of Henry the Eighth's reign, few dramas written unless in the mixed kind: and there has lately been discovered a work of Bale himself, which is the
oldest extant specimen of the combination. It is a play on the history of “ King John,” in which the king himself, the pope, and other personages of the time, are associated with the old allegorical figures.
The Mixed-Plays, from that time downwards, are commonly known, not inaptly, by the name of Interludes. The most celebrated productions of this class and age were the plays of John Heywood, who, having published a series of epigrams, is usually
, to distinguish him from a later dramatic writer, named “The Epigrammatist." His Interludes deal largely in ecclesiastical satire; and, not devoid of spirit or humour, they have very
little either of skill in character-painting, or of interest in story. One of the earliest among them is “ A Merry Play between the Pardoner and the Friar, the Curate and Neighbour Pratt,” which has for its principal theme the frauds practised by the friars, and by the sellers of indulgences. In “The Four P's” the only plot is this. The Pardoner, the “Poticary," and the Palmer, lay a wager, to be gained by him who shall tell the greatest untruth. The first two recount long and marvellous tales, each of his
craft: and the third, who asserts in a single sentence that he never saw a woman lose patience, is adjudged by the Pedlar, the chosen umpire, to have fairly out-lied both of his rivals.
It is not a loss of time to remark this dramatic feebleness and these stale and weak impertinences. For Heywood's life extended to within twenty years of the time when Shakspeare must have begun to write. We are still, it should seem, at a hopeless distance from the great master. Fortunately we need not quit our period without having to mark several wide steps in advance ; although it is necessary to anticipate a very few years of the next age, in order to bring all of these conveniently together.
8. About the middle of the century, the drama extricated itself completely from its ancient fetters. Both Comedy and Tragedy had then begun to exist, not in name only, but in a rude reality. The author of our oldest known Comedy was Nicholas Udall,
who was master at Eton School, and afterwards of West
minster, becoming, in both places, rather notorious for the severity of his punishments. He was a classical scholar of some note; and he published a school-book, called “ Flowers of Latin Speaking,” with other Latin works. He was in part the translator of the Paraphrase of Erasmus on the New Testament
, published under the patronage of Catherine Parr, the queen-dowager. He wrote several dramas, now lost, one of them being English play called “ Ezekias,” which was acted before Elizabeth
b. 1505. d. 1556.
at Cambridge; while another was a Latin play “On the Papacy," probably intended to be enacted by his pupils. The same may have been the destination of the English Comedy, through which he holds his place in the general history of our literature. It is called “Ralph Roister Doister," from the name of its hero, a silly town-rake. The misadventures of this person are represented in it with much comic force. The story is well conducted; the situations are contrived dexterously; and the dialogue, though rough in diction, and couched in an irregular and unmusical kind of rhyme, abounds in spirit and humour. Its exact date is unknown; but it was certainly written before the year 1557.*
Ten years afterwards, our earliest tragedy was publicly played in the Inner Temple. It is known by two names,
Gorboduc” and “Ferrex and Porrex :” and it was probably the joint production of two authors, both of whom have already become known
* NICHOLAS UDALL. From the Soliloquy with which his Comedy is opened, by Matthew Merrygreek, the
knave of the piece.
in winter with hungry griping:
But now of Roister Doister somewhat to express,
b. 1532. d. 1584.
to us. The first three acts are said to have been written by Thomas Norton, the last two by Lord Buckhurst. Doubts havo been expressed as to the authorship of the former ; but they do not seem to rest on sufficient ground; and it would be wrong to reject hastily a claim to reputation, presented on behalf of one
whom we know to have otherwise shown literary capa}
bility. Norton, accordingly, may be allowed to share, with his more celebrated coadjutor, the honour which the authors of “Gorboduc” receive on two several grounds. It was the earliest tragedy in our language: it was the first instance in which the recent experiment of blank verse was applied to dramatic composition. Its story is a chapter from ancient British history, presenting to us nothing but domestic hate and revenge, national bloodshed and calamity. The old king of Britain having in his lifetime shared his realm between his two sons, these strive for undivided sovereignty. The younger kills the elder, and is himself assassinated by the mother of both. The exasperated people exterminate the blood-stained race: and the country is left in desolation and anarchy. The incidents constituting the plot are very inartificially connected ; and all the great events, instead of being directly represented in action, are intimated only in narrative, or in dumb shows, like those which we find in one or two early works of Shakspeare. Between the acts the story is moralized by a chorus. The dialogue is heavy, declamatory, and undramatic; and its chief merit, which is far from being small, lies in the stately tone of the language, no slight achievement in a first attempt, and in the solemnly reflective tone of the sentiments. *
* THOMAS SACKVILLE, From the Fourth Act of Gorboduc: Queen Videna's Lamentation for the death of
her elder son.
Might not these hands, by fortune or by fate,
So had my bones possessëd now, in peace,