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Here it seems clear that his hopes of the actor were unfulfilled. However, he saw Henry IV. again a few months later, and had the grace to describe it as “a good play.” On a third occasion he wrote that, “contrary to expectation,” he was pleased by the delivery of Falstaff's ironical speech about honour. For whatever reason, Pepys's affection for Shakespeare's fat knight, as he figured on the stage of his day, never touched the note of exaltation.
Of Shakespeare's great tragedies Pepys saw three - Othello, Hamlet, and Macbeth. But in considering his several impressions of these pieces, we have to make an important proviso. Only the first two of them did he witness in the authentic version. Macbeth underwent in his day a most liberal transformation, which carried it far from its primordial purity. The impressions he finally formed of Othello and Hamlet are not consistent one with the other, but are eminently characteristic of the variable moods of the average playgoer.
Othello he saw twice, and he tells us more of the acting than of the play itself. On his first visit he notes that the lady next him shrieked on seeing Desdemona smothered: a proof of the strength of the histrionic illusion. Up to the year 1666 Pepys adhered to the praiseworthy opinion that Othello was a "mighty good” play. But in that year his judgment took a turn for the worse, and that for a reason which finally convicts him of incapacity to pass just sentence on the poetic or literary drama. On August 20, 1666, he writes: “Read Othello, Moor of Venice, which I have ever heretofore esteemed a mighty good play; but having so lately read the Adventures of Five Hours, it seems a mean thing."
PEPYS ON OTHELLO
Most lovers of Shakespeare will agree that the great dramatist rarely showed his mature powers to more magnificent advantage than in his treatment of plot and character in Othello. What, then, is this Adventures of Five Hours, compared with which Othello became in Pepys's eyes "a mean thing"? It is a trivial comedy of intrigue, adapted from the Spanish by one Sir Samuel Tuke. A choleric guardian arranges for his ward, who also happens to be his sister, to marry against her will a man whom she has never seen. Without her guardian's knowledge she, before the design goes further, escapes with a lover of her own choosing. In her place she leaves a close friend, who is wooed in mistake for herself by the suitor destined for her own hand. This is the main dramatic point; the thread is very slender, and is drawn out to its utmost limits through five acts of blank verse. The language and metre are scrupulously correct. But one cannot credit the play with any touch of poetry or imagination. It presents a trite theme tamely and prosaically. Congenital inability of the most inveterate toughness to appreciate dramatic poetry could alone account for a mention of the Adventures of Five Hours in the same breath with Othello.
Pepys did not again fall so low as this. The only other tragedy of Shakespeare which he saw in its authentic purity moved him, contradictorily, to transports of unqualified delight. One is glad to recall that Hamlet, one of the greatest of Shakespeare's plays, received from Pepys ungrudging commendation. Pepys's favourable opinion of Hamlet is to be assigned to two causes. One is the literary and psychological attractions of the piece; the other, and perhaps the more important, is the manner in which the play was interpreted on the stage of Pepys's time.
Pepys is not the only owner of a prosaic mind who has found satisfaction in Shakespeare's portrait of the Prince of Denmark. Over minds of almost every calibre, that hero of the stage has always exerted a pathetic fascination, which natural antipathy to poetry seems unable to extinguish. Pepys's testimony to his respect for the piece is abundant. The whole of one Sunday afternoon (November 13, 1664), he spent at home with his wife, "getting a speech out of Hamlet, “To be or not to be,' without book.” He proved, indeed, his singular admiration for those familiar lines in a manner which I believe to be unique. He set them to music, and the notes are extant in a book of manuscript music in his library at Magdalene College, Cambridge. The piece is a finely-elaborated recitative fully equal to the requirements of grand opera. The composer gives intelligent and dignified expression to every word of the soliloquy. Very impressive is the modulation of the musical accompaniment to the lines
To die, to sleep! To sleep, perchance to dream! ay, there's the rub. It is possible that the cadences of this musical rendering of Hamlet's speech preserve some echo of the intonation of the great actor, Betterton, whose performance evoked in Pepys lasting adoration."
It goes without saying that, for the full enjoy
1 Sir Frederick Bridge, by permission of the Master and Fellows of Magdalene College, Cambridge, caused this setting of “To be or not to be" (which bears no composer's signature) to be transcribed from the manuscript, and he arranged the piece to be sung at the meeting of the Pepys Club on November 30, 1905. Sir Frederick Bridge believes Pepys to be the composer.
BETTERTON'S RENDERING OF HAMLET 101
ment of a performance of Hamlet by both cultured and uncultured spectators, acting of supreme quality is needful. Luckily for Pepys, Hamlet in his day was rendered by an actor who, according to ample extant testimony, interpreted the part to perfection. Pepys records four performances of Hamlet, with Betterton in the title-rôle on each occasion. With every performance Pepys's enthusiasm rose. The first time he writes (August 24, 1661): "Saw the play done with scenes very well at the Opera, but above all Betterton did the Prince's part beyond imagination.” On the third occasion (May 28, 1663), the rendering gave him “fresh reason never to think enough of Betterton.” On the last occasion (August 31, 1668) he was "mightily pleased,” but above all with Betterton, “the best part, I believe, that ever man acted.”
Hamlet was one of the most popular plays of Pepys's day, mainly owing to Betterton's extraordinary faculty. The history of the impersonation presents numerous points of the deepest interest. The actor was originally coached in the part by D'Avenant. The latter is said to have derived hints for the rendering from an old actor, Joseph Taylor, who had played the rôle in Shakespeare's own day, and had been instructed in it by the dramatist himself. This tradition gives additional value to Pepys's musical setting in recitative of the "To be or not to be” soliloquy. If we accept the reasonable theory that that piece of music preserves something of the cadences of Betterton's enunciation, it is no extravagance to suggest that a note here or there enshrines the modulation of the voice of Shakespeare himself. For there is the likelihood that the dramatist was Betterton's instructor at no more than two removes. Only the lips of D'Avenant, Shakespeare's godson, and of Taylor, Shakespeare's acting colleague, intervened between the dramatist and the Hamlet of Pepys's diary. Those alone, who have heard the musical setting of “To be or not to be” adequately rendered, are in a position to reject this hypothesis altogether.
Among seventeenth century critics there was unanimous agreement-a rare thing among dramatic critics of any period—as to the merits of Betterton's performance. In regard to his supreme excellence, men of the different mental calibre of Sir Richard Steele, Colley Cibber, and Nicholas Rowe, knew no difference of opinion. According to Cibber, Betterton invariably preserved the happy "medium between mouthing and meaning too little”; he held
' the attention of the audience by “a tempered spirit,” not by mere vehemence of voice. His solemn, trembling voice made the Ghost equally terrible to the spectator and to himself. Another critic relates that when Betterton's Hamlet saw the Ghost in his mother's chamber, the actor turned as pale as his neckcloth; every joint of his body seemed to be affected with a tremor inexpressible, and the audience shared his astonishment and horror. Nicholas Rowe declared that “Betterton performed the part as if it had been written on purpose for him, as if the author had conceived it as he played it.” It is difficult to imagine any loftier commendation of a Shakespearean player.
V There is little reason to doubt that the plays of Shakespeare which I have enumerated were all seen