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SHAKESPEARE AND THE ELIZABETHAN PLAYGOER 1
IN a freak of fancy, Robert Louis Stevenson sent to a congenial spirit the imaginary intelligence that a well-known firm of London publishers had, after their wont, "declined with thanks" six undiscovered tragedies, one romantic comedy, a fragment of a journal extending over six years, and an unfinished autobiography reaching up to the first performance of King John by "that venerable but still respected writer, William Shakespeare." Stevenson was writing in a frivolous mood; but such words stir the imagination. The ordinary person, if he had to choose among the enumerated items of Shakespeare's newly-discovered manuscripts, would cheerfully go without the six new tragedies and the one romantic comedy, if he had at his disposal, by way of consolation, the journal extending over six years and the autobiography
1 This paper, which was first printed in "An English Miscellany, presented to Dr Furnivall in honour of his seventy-fifth birthday" (Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1901), was written as a lecture for delivery on Tuesday afternoon, March 20, 1900, at Queen's College (for women) in Harley Street, London, in aid of the Fund for securing a picture commemorating Queen Victoria's visit to the College in 1898.
reaching up to the first performance of King John. We should deem ourselves fortunate if we had the journal alone. It would hardly matter which six years of Shakespeare's life the journal covered. As a boy, as a young actor, as an industrious reviser of other men's plays, as the humorous creator of Falstaff, Benedick, and Mercutio, as the profound "natural philosopher" of the great tragedies, he could never have been quite an ordinary diarist. Great men have been known to keep diaries in which the level of interest does not rise above a visit to the barber or the dentist. The common routine of life interested Shakespeare, but something beyond it must have found place in his journal. Reference to his glorious achievement must have gained entry there.
Some notice, we may be sure, figured in Shakespeare's diary of the first performances of his great plays on the stage. However eminent a man is through native genius or from place of power, he can never be indifferent, whatever his casual professions to the contrary, to the reception accorded by his fellowmen to the work of his hand and head. I picture Shakespeare as the soul of modesty and gentleness in the social relations of life, avoiding unbecoming self-advertisement, and rating at its just value empty flattery, the mere adulation of the lips. Gushing laudation is as little to the taste of wise men as treacle. They cannot escape condiments of the kind, but the smaller and less frequent the doses the more they are content. Shakespeare no doubt had the great man's self-confidence which renders him to a large extent independent of the opinion of his fellows. At the same
THE GHOST IN HAMLET
time, the knowledge that he had succeeded in stirring the reader or hearer of his plays, the knowledge that his words had gripped their hearts and intellects, cannot have been ungrateful to him. To desire recognition for his work is for the artist an inevitable and a laudable ambition. A working dramatist by the circumstance of his calling appeals as soon as the play is written to the playgoer for a sympathetic appreciation. Nature impelled Shakespeare to note on the pages of his journal his impression of the sentiment with which the fruits of his pen were welcomed in the playhouse.
But Shakespeare's journal does not exist, and we can only speculate as to its contents.
We would give much to know how Shakespeare recorded in his diary the first performance of Hamlet, the most fascinating of all his works. He himself, we are credibly told, played the Ghost. We would give much for a record of the feelings which lay on the first production of the play beneath the breast of the silent apparition in the first scene which twice crossed the stage and affrighted Marcellus, Horatio, and the guards on the platform before the castle of Elsinore. No piece of literature that ever came from human pen or brain is more closely packed with fruit of the imaginative study of human life than is Shakespeare's tragedy of Hamlet; and while the author acted the part of the Ghost in the play's initial representation in
the theatre, he was watching the revelation of his pregnant message for the first time to the external world. When the author in his weird rôle of Hamlet's murdered father opened his lips for the first time, we might almost imagine that in the words "pity me not, but lend thy serious hearing to what I shall unfold," he was reflecting the author's personal interest in the proceedings of that memorable afternoon.1 We can imagine Shakespeare, as he saw the audience responding to his grave appeal, giving with a growing confidence, the subsequent words which he repeated while he moved to the centre of the platform-stage, and turned to face the whole house:—
I find thee apt;
And duller shouldst thou be than the fat weed
As the Ghost vanished and the air rang mysteriously with his piercing words "Remember me," we would like to imagine the whole intelligence of Elizabethan England responding to that cry as it sprang on its first utterance in the theatre from the great dramatist's own lips. Since that memorable day, at any rate, the whole intelligence of the world has responded to that cry with all Hamlet's ecstasy, and with but a single modification of the phraseology:
Ay, thou great soul, while memory holds a seat
1 Performances of plays in Shakespeare's time always took place in the afternoon.
There is a certain justification, in fact, for the fancy that the plaudites were loud and long, when Shakespeare created the rôle of the "poor ghost" in the first production of his play of Hamlet in 1602. There is no doubt at all that Shakespeare conspicuously caught the ear of the Elizabethan playgoer at a very early date in his career, and that he held it firmly for life. "These plays," wrote two of his professional associates of the reception of the whole series in the playhouse in his lifetime -"These plays have had their trial already, and stood out all appeals." Matthew Arnold, apparently quite unconsciously, echoed the precise phrase when seeking to express poetically, the universality of Shakespeare's reputation in our own day.
Others abide our judgment, thou art free,
is the first line of Arnold's well-known sonnet, which attests the rank allotted to Shakespeare in the literary hierarchy by the professional critic, nearly two and a half centuries after the dramatist's death. There was no narrower qualification in the apostrophe of Shakespeare by Ben Jonson, a very critical contemporary, as:
Soul of the age,
The applause, delight, and wonder of our stage.
This play of Hamlet, this play of his "which most kindled English hearts," received a specially enthusiastic welcome from Elizabethan playgoers. It was acted within its first year of production repeatedly ("divers times"), not merely in London "and elsewhere," but also-an unusual distinction