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-at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. It was reprinted four times within eight years of its birth.
Thus the charge sometimes brought against the Elizabethan playgoer of failing to recognise Shakespeare's sovereign genius should be reckoned among popular errors. It was not merely the recognition of the critical and highly educated that Shakespeare received in person. It was by the voice of the half-educated populace, whose heart and intellect were for once in the right, that he was acclaimed the greatest interpreter of human nature that literature had known, and, as subsequent experience has proved, was likely to know. There is evidence that throughout his lifetime and for a generation afterwards his plays drew crowds to pit, boxes, and gallery alike. It is true that he was one of a number of popular dramatists, many of whom had rare gifts, and all of whom glowed with a spark of the genuine literary fire. But Shakespeare was the sun in the firmament: when his light shone, the fires of all contemporaries paled in the contemporary playgoer's eye. There is forcible and humorous portrayal of human frailty and eccentricity in plays of Shakespeare's contemporary, Ben Jonson. Ben Jonson was a classical scholar, which Shakespeare was not. Jonson was as well versed in Roman history as a college tutor. But when Shakespeare and Ben Jonson both tried their hands at dramatising episodes in Roman history, the Elizabethan public of all degrees of intelligence welcomed Shakespeare's efforts with an enthusiasm which they rigidly withheld from Ben Jonson's. This is how an ordinary playgoer con
SHAKESPEARE AT COURT IN 1594
trasted the reception of Jonson's Roman play of Catiline's Conspiracy with that of Shakespeare's Roman play of Julius Cæsar:
So have I seen when Cæsar would appear,
Shakespeare was the popular favourite. It is rare that the artist who is a hero with the multitude is also a hero with the cultivated few. But Shakespeare's universality of appeal was such as to include among his worshippers from the first the trained and the untrained playgoer of his time.
Very early in his career did Shakespeare attract the notice of the cultivated section of Elizabeth's Court, and hardly sufficient notice has been taken by students of the poet's biography of the earliest recognition accorded him by the great queen, herself an inveterate lover of the drama, and an embodiment of the taste of the people in literature. The story is worth retelling. In the middle of December 1594, Queen Elizabeth removed from Whitehall to Greenwich to spend Christmas at that palace of Greenwich in which she was born sixty-one years earlier. And she made the celebration of Christmas of 1594 more memorable than any other in the annals of her reign or in the literary history of the country by summoning Shakespeare to Court. It was less than eight years since the poet had first set foot in the metropolis. His career was little more
than opened. But by 1594 Shakespeare had given his countrymen unmistakable indications of the stuff of which he was made. His progress had been more sure than rapid. A young man of twoand-twenty, burdened with a wife and three children, he had left his home in the little country town of Stratford-on-Avon in 1586 to seek his fortune in London. Without friends, without money, he had, like any other stage-struck youth, set his heart on becoming an actor in the metropolis. Fortune favoured him. He sought and won the humble office of call-boy in a London playhouse; but no sooner had his foot touched the lowest rung of the theatrical ladder than his genius taught him that the topmost rung was within his reach. He tried his hand on the revision of an old play, and the manager was not slow to recognise an unmatched gift for dramatic writing.
It was probably not till 1591, when Shakespeare was twenty-seven, that his earliest original play, Love's Labour's Lost, was performed. It showed the hand of a beginner; it abounded in trivial witticisms. But above all, there shone out clearly and unmistakably the dramatic and poetic fire, the humorous outlook on life, the insight into human feeling, which were to inspire Titanic achievements in the future.
Soon after, Shakespeare scaled the tragic heights of Romeo and Juliet, and he was hailed as the prophet of a new world of art. Fashionable London society then, as now, befriended the theatre. Cultivated noblemen offered their patronage to promising writers for the stage, and Shakespeare soon gained the ear of the young Earl of Southampton, one of the most accomplished and handsome of the queen's
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
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