Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB

SHAKESPEARE'S HISTRIONIC REPUTE

33

noble courtiers, who was said to spend nearly all his time in going to the playhouse every day. It was at Southampton's suggestion, that, in the week preceding the Christmas of 1594, the Lord Chamberlain sent word to The Theatre in Shoreditch, where Shakespeare was at work as playwright and actor, that the poet was expected at Court on two days following Christmas, in order to give his sovereign on the two evenings a taste of his quality. He was to act before her in his own plays.

It cannot have been Shakespeare's promise as an actor that led to the royal summons. His histrionic fame had not progressed at the same rate as his literary repute. He was never to win the laurels of a great actor. His most conspicuous triumph on the stage was achieved in middle life as the Ghost in his own Hamlet, and he ordinarily confined his efforts to old men of secondary rank. Ample compensation was provided by his companions for his personal deficiencies as an actor on his first visit to Court; he was to come supported by actors of the highest eminence in their generation. Directions were given that the greatest of the tragic actors of the day, Richard Burbage, and the greatest of the comic actors, William Kemp, were to bear the young actor-dramatist company. With neither of these was Shakespeare's histrionic position then or at any time comparable. For years they were leaders of the acting profession.

Shakespeare's relations with Burbage and Kemp were close, both privately and professionally. Almost all Shakespeare's great tragic characters were created on the stage by Burbage, who had lately roused London to enthusiasm by his stirring presen

[ocr errors]

tation of Shakespeare's Richard III. for the first time. As long as Kemp lived, he conferred a like service on many of Shakespeare's comic characters; and he had recently proved his worth as a Shakespearean comedian by his original rendering of the part of Peter, the Nurse's graceless attendant, in Romeo and Juliet. Thus stoutly backed, Shakespeare appeared for the first time in the royal presence-chamber of Greenwich Palace on the evening of St. Stephen's Day (the Boxing Day of subsequent generations) in 1594.

Extant documentary evidence attests that Shakespeare and his two associates performed one "comedy or interlude” on that night of Boxing Day in 1594, and gave another "comedy or interlude” on the next night but one; that the Lord Chamberlain paid the three men for their services the sum of £13, 6s. 8d., and that the queen added to the honorarium, as a personal proof of her satisfaction, the further sum of £6, 13s. 4d. These were substantial sums in those days, when the purchasing power of money was eight times as much as it is to-day, and the three actors' reward would now be equivalent to £160.

Unhappily the record does not go beyond the payment of the money. What words of commendation or encouragement Shakespeare received from his royal auditor are not handed down, nor do we know for certain what plays were performed on the great occasion. All the scenes came from Shakespeare's repertory, and it is reasonable to infer that they were drawn from Love's Labour's Lost, which was always popular in later years at Elizabeth's Court, and from The Comedy of Errors, where the

SHAKESPEARE'S ROYAL PATRONS

35

farcial confusions and horse-play were after the queen's own heart and robust taste. But nothing can be stated with absolute certainty except that on December 29 Shakespeare travelled up the river from Greenwich to London with a heavier purse and a lighter heart than on his setting out. That the visit had in all ways been crowned with success there is ample indirect evidence. He and his work had fascinated his sovereign, and many a time during her remaining nine years of life was she to seek delight again in the renderings of plays by himself and his fellow-actors at her palaces on the banks of the Thames. When Shakespeare was penning his new play of A Midsummer Night's Dream next year, he could not forbear to make a passing obeisance of gallantry (in that vein for which the old spinster queen was always thirsting) to "a fair vestal throned by the West,” who passed her life "in maiden meditation, fancy free.”

Although literature and art can flourish without royal favour and royal patronage, still it is rare that royal patronage has any other effect than that of raising those who are its objects in the estimation of contemporaries. The interest that Shakespeare's work excited at Court was continuous throughout his life. When James I. ascended the throne, no author was more frequently honoured by "command" performances of his plays in the presence of the sovereign. And then, as now, the playgoer's appreciation was quickened by his knowledge that the play they were witnessing had been produced before the Court at Whitehall a few days earlier. Shakespeare's publishers were not above advertising facts like these, as may be seen by a survey of the title-pages of editions published in his life-time. “The pleasant conceited comedy called Love's Labour's Lostwas advertised with the appended words, “as it was presented before her highness this last Christmas." “A most pleasant and excellent conceited comedy of Sir John Falstaff and the Merry Wives of Windsor” was stated to have been “divers times acted both before her majesty and elsewhere.” The great play of Lear was advertised, “as it was played before the king's majesty at Whitehall on St. Stephen's night in the Christmas holidays.”

V

Although Shakespeare's illimitable command of expression, his universality of knowledge and insight, cannot easily be overlooked by any man or woman of ordinary human faculty, still, from some points of view, there is ground for surprise that the Elizabethan playgoer's enthusiasm for Shakespeare's work was so marked and unequivocal as we know that it was.

Let us consider for a moment the physical conditions of the theatre, the methods of stage representation, in Shakespeare's day. Theatres were in their infancy. The theatre was a new institution in social life for Shakespeare's public, and the whole system of the theatrical world came into being after Shakespeare came into the world. In estimating Shakespeare's genius one ought to bear in mind that he was a pioneer-almost the creator or first designer-of English drama, as well as the practised workman in unmatched perfection. There were before his day some efforts made at dramatic

THE FIRST THEATRE IN ENGLAND

37

representation. The Middle Ages had their miracle plays and moralities and interludes. But of poetic, literary, romantic drama, England knew nothing until Shakespeare was of age. Marlowe, who in his early years inaugurated English tragedy, was Shakespeare's senior by only two months. It was not till 1576, when Shakespeare was twelve, that London for the first time possessed a theatre—a building definitely built for the purpose of presenting plays. Before that year inn-yards or platforms, which were improvised in market-places or fields, served for the performance of interludes or moralities.

Nor was it precisely in London proper that this primal theatre, which is known in history simply as The Theatre, was set up. London in Shakespeare's day was a small town, barely a mile square, with a population little exceeding 60,000 persons. Within the circuit of the city-walls vacant spaces were sparse, and public opinion deprecated the erection of buildings upon them. Moreover, the puritan clergy and their pious flocks, who constituted an active section of the citizens, were inclined to resist the conversion of any existing building into such a Satanic trap for unwary souls as they believed a playhouse of necessity to be.

It was, accordingly, in the fields near London, not in London itself, that the first theatre was set up. Adjoining the city lay pleasant meadows, which were bright in spring-time with daisies and violets. Green lanes conducted the wayfarer to the rural retreat of Islington, and citizens went for change of air to the rustic seclusion of Maryle-bone. A site for the first-born of London playhouses was chosen in the spacious fields of Finsbury

« ZurückWeiter »