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“a soldier," writing to Secretary Walsingham, in January, 15869, tells him, that “every day in the week the players' bills are set up in sundry places of the city,” and after mentioning the actors of the Queen, the Earl of Leicester', the Earl of Oxford, and the Lord Admiral, he goes on to state that not fewer than two hundred persons, thus retained and employed, strutted in their silks about the streets. It may be doubted whether this statement is much exaggerated, recollecting the many noblemen who had players acting under their names at this date, and that each company consisted probably of eight or ten performers. On the same authority we learn that theatrical representations upon the Sabbath had been forbidden; but this restriction does not seem to have been imposed without a considerable struggle. Before 1581 the Privy Council had issued an order upon the subject, but it was disregarded in some of the suburbs of London; and it was not until after a fatal exhibition of bear-baiting at Paris Garden, upon Sunday, 13 June, 1583, when many persons were killed and wounded by the falling of a scaffold, that the practice of playing, as well as bear-baiting, on the Sabbath was at all generally checked. In 1586, as far as we can judge from the information that has come down to our day, the order which had been issued in this respect was pretty strictly enforced. At this period, and afterwards, plays were
8 See the original letter in Harleian MSS. No. 286.
9 The manner in which about this time the players were bribed away from Oxford is curious, and one of the items in the accounts expressly applies to the Earl of Leicester's servants. We are obliged to the Rev. Dr. Bliss for the following extracts, relating to this period and a little afterwards :1587 Solut. Histrionibus Comitis Lecestriæ, ut cum suis ludis sine majore Academiæ molestià discedant.
. . . . x.xs Solut. Histrionibus Honoratissimi Domini Howard . . xxs 1588 Solut. Histrionibus, ne ludos inhonestos exercerent infra Universi
tatem . . . . . . . . . . (no sum) 1590 Solut. per D. Eedes, vice-cancellarii locum tenentem, quibusdam
Histrionibus, ut sine perturbatione et strepitu ab Academia discederent . . . . . . . . . . xs
not unfrequently played at court on Sunday, and the chief difficulty therefore seems to have been to induce the Privy Council to act with energy against similar performances in public theatres.
The annual official statement of the master of the revels merely tells us, in general terms, that between Christmas 1586, and Shrovetide 1587, “seven plays, besides feats of activity, and other shows by the children of Paul's, her Majesty's servants, and the gentlemen of Gray's Inn,” were prepared and represented before the Queen at Greenwich. No names of plays are furnished, but in 1587 was printed a tragedy, under the title of “ The Misfortunes of Arthur," which purports to have been acted by some of the members of Gray's Inn before the Queen, on 28 Feb. 1587: this, in fact, must be the very production stated in the revels' accounts to have been got up and performed by these parties; and it requires notice, not merely for its own intrinsic excellence as a drama, but because, in point of date, it is the second play founded upon English history represented at court, as well as the second original theatrical production in blank-verse that has been preserved'. The example, in this particular, had been set, as we have already shown, in “Gorboduc,” fifteen years before; and it is probable, that in that interval not a few of the serious compositions exhibited at court were in blank-verse, but it had not yet been used on any of our public stages.
The main body of “The Misfortunes of Arthur” was the authorship of Thomas Hughes, a member of Gray's Inn; but some speeches and two choruses (which are in rhyme) were added by William Fulbecke and Francis Flower, while no less a man than Lord Bacon assisted
i Gascoyne's “ Jocasta," printed in 1577, and represented by the author and other members of the society at Gray's Inn in 1566 as a private show, was a translation from Euripides. It is, as far as has yet been ascertained, the second play in our language written in blank-verse, but it was not an original work. The same author's “ Supposes," taken from Ariosto, is in prose.
Christopher Yelverton and John Lancaster in the preparation of the dumb-shows. Hughes evidently took “ Gorboduc” as his model, both in subject and style, and, like Sackville and Norton, he adopted the form of the Greek and Roman drama, and adhered more strictly than his predecessors to the unities of time and place. The plot relates to the rebellion of Mordred against his father, king Arthur, and part of the plot is very revolting, on account of the incest between Mordred and his stepmother Guenevora, Mordred himself being the son of Arthur's sister: there is also a vast deal of blood and slaughter throughout, and the catastrophe is the killing of the son by the father, and of the father by the son; so that a more painfully disagreeable story could hardly have been selected. The author, however, possessed a very bold and vigorous genius; his characters are strongly drawn, and the language they employ is consistent with their situations and habits: his blankverse, both in force and variety, is superior to that of either Sackville or Norton?.
It is very clear, that up to the year 1580, about which date Gosson published his “ Plays confuted in Five Actions,” dramatic performances on the public stages of London were sometimes in prose, but more constantly in rhyme. In his “ School of Abuse,” 1579, Gosson speaks of “two prose books played at the Bell Savage 3;" but in his “ Plays confuted” he tells us, that “poets send their verses to the stage upon such feet as continually are rolled up in rhyme.” With one one or two exceptions all the plays publicly acted, of a date anterior to 1590, that have come down to us, are either in prose or in rhyme'. The case seems to have been different, as already remarked, with some of the court-shows and private entertainments; but we are now adverting to the pieces represented at such places as the Theatre, the Curtain, Blackfriars, and in inn-yards adapted temporarily to dramatic amusements, to which the public was indiscriminately admitted. The earliest work, in which the employment of blank-verse for the purpose of the common stage is noticed, is an epistle by Thomas Nash introducing to the world his friend Robert Greene's “Menaphon,” in 15875: there, in reference to “vain-glorious tragedians,” he says, that they are “mounted on the stage of arrogance,” and that they “ think to out-brave better pens with the swelling bombast of bragging blank verse.” He afterwards talks of the “drumming decasyllibon” they employed, and ridicules them for “reposing eternity in the mouth of a player.” This question is farther illustrated by a production by Greene, published in the next year, “ Perimedes, the Blacksmith,” from which it is evident that Nash bad an individual allusion in what he had said in 1587. Greene fixes on the author of the tragedy of “Tamburlaine,” whom he accuses of " setting the end of scholarism in an English blank verse,” and who, it should seem, had somewhere accused Greene of not being able to write it.
1 « The Misfortunes of Arthur," with four other dramas, has been reprinted in a supplementary volume to the last edition of Dodsley's Old Plays. It is not, therefore, necessary here to enter into an examination of its structure or versification. It is a work of extraordinary power.
* See the Shakespeare Society's reprint, p. 30. Gosson gives them the highest praise, asserting that they contained “never a word without wit, never a line without pith, never a letter placed in vain."
* Sometimes plays written in prose were, at a subsequent date, when blankverse had become the popular form of composition, published as if they had been composed in measured lines. The old historical play, “ The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth,” which preceded that of Shakespeare, is an instance directly in point: it was written in prose, but the old printer chopped it up into lines of unequal length, so as to make it appear to the eye something like blank-verse.
s Greene began writing in 1583, his “ Mamillia” having been then printed : his “ Mirror of Modesty” and “ Monardo," bear the date of 1584. His“ Menaphon" (afterwards called “Greene's Arcadia") first appeared in 1587, and it was reprinted in 1589. We have never seen the earliest edition of it, but it is mentioned by various bibliographers; and those who have thrown doubt upon the point, (stated in the History of English Dramatic Poetry and the Stage, vol. iii. p. 150) for the sake of founding an argument upon it, have not adverted to the conclusive fact, that “Menaphon” is mentioned as already in print in the introductory matter to another of Greene's pamphlets, dated in 1587—we mean “ Euphues his Censure to Philautus.”
We learn from various authorities, that Christopher Marlowe 6 was the author of “Tamburlaine the Great,” a dramatic work of the highest celebrity and popularity, printed as early as 1590, and affording the first known instance of the use of blank-verse in a public theatre: the title-page of the edition 1590 states, that it had been “sundry times shown upon stages in the city of London.” In the prologue the author claims to have introduced a new form of composition :
“ From jigging veins of rhyming mother-rits,
And such conceits as clownage keeps in pay,
We'll lead you to the stately tent of war,” &c. Accordingly, nearly the whole drama, consisting of a first and second part, is in blank-verse. Hence we see the value of Dryden's loose assertion, in the dedication to Lord Orrery of his “Rival Ladies," in 1664, that
6 If Marlowe were born, as has been supposed, about 1562, (Oldys places the event earlier) he was twenty-four when he wrote “ Tamburlaine,” as we believe, in 1586, and only thirty-one when he was killed by a person of the name of Archer, in an affray arising out of an amorous intrigue, in 1593. In a manuscript note of the time, in a copy of his version of “Hero and Leander,” edit. 1629, in our possession, it is said, among other things, that“ Marlowe's father was a shoemaker at Canterbury," and that he had an acquaintance at Dover whom he infected with the extreme liberality of his opinions on matters of religion. At the back of the title-page of the same volume is inserted the following epitaph, subscribed with Marlowe's name, and no doubt of his composition, although never before noticed :
“ In obitum honoratissimi viri
Reginalis Capitalis Baronis.
Famæque marmorei superet monumenta sepulchri.”