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SHAKESPEARE'S ROYAL PATRONS
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 Lost" was 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."
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
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
and Shoreditch, which the Great Eastern Railway now occupies. The innovation of a theatre, even though it were placed outside the walls of the city, excited serious misgiving among the godly minority. But, after much controversy the battle was finally won by the supporters of the play, and The Theatre was launched on a prosperous career. Two or three other theatres quickly sprang up in neighbouring parts of London's environment. When Shakespeare was reaching the zenith of his career, the centre of theatrical life was transferred from Shoreditch to the Southwark bank of the river Thames, at the south side of London Bridge, which lay outside the city's boundaries, but was easy of access to residents within them. It was at the Globe Theatre on Bankside, which was reached by bridge or by boat from the city-side of the river, that Shakespearean drama won its most glorious triumphs.
Despite the gloomy warnings of the preachers, the new London theatres had for the average Elizabethan all the fascination that a new toy has for a child. The average Elizabethan repudiated the jeremiads of the ultra-pious, and instantaneously became an enthusiastic playgoer. During the last year of the sixteenth century, an intelligent visitor to London, Thomas Platter, a native of Basle, whose journal has recently been discovered,1 de
1 Professor Binz of Basle printed in September, 1899, some extracts from Thomas Platter's unpublished diary of travels under the title: Londoner Theater und Schauspiele im Jahre 1599. Platter spent a month in London-September 18 to October 20, 1599. Platter's manuscript is in the Library of Basle University.
DISCOMFORTS OF AN AUDIENCE
scribed with ingenuous sympathy the delight which the populace displayed in the new playhouses.
Some attractions which the theatres offered had little concern with the drama. Their advantages included the privileges of eating and drinking while the play was in progress. After the play there was invariably a dance on the stage, often a brisk and boisterous Irish jig.
Other features of the entertainment seem to have been less exhilarating. The mass of the spectators filled the pit, where there was standing room only; there were no seats. The admission rarely cost more than a penny; but there was no roof. The rain beat at pleasure on the heads of the "penny" auditors; while pickpockets commonly plied their trade among them without much hindrance when the piece absorbed the attention of the "house." Seats or benches were only to be found in the two galleries, the larger portions of which were separated into "rooms" or boxes; prices there ranged from twopence to half-a-crown. If the playgoer had plenty of money at his command he could, according to the German visitor, hire not only a seat but a cushion to elevate his stature; "so that," says our author, "he might not only see the play, but"-what is also often more important for rich people "be seen" by the audience to be occupying a specially distinguished place. Fashionable playgoers of the male sex might, if they opened their purses wide enough, occupy stools on the wide platform-stage. Such a practice proved embarrassing, not only to the performers, but to those who had to content themselves with the penny pit. Standing in front and by the sides of the projecting