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finally usurped the whole stage ; while they in turn gradually yielded to real and historical characters, at first only intended* to give variety to abstract impersonations. Hence the origin of comedy, tragedy, and history, such as we find them in the works of Shakespeare, and in those of some of his immediate predecessors.
What is justly to be considered the oldest known comedy in our language is of a date not much posterior to the reign of Henry VIII., if, indeed, it were not composed while he was on the throne. It has the title of “Ralph Roister Doister," and it was written by Nicholas Udall, who was master of Eton school in 1540, and who died in 1557. It is on every account a very remarkable performance; and as the scene is laid in London, it affords a curious picture of metropolitan manners. The regularity of its construction, even at that early date, may be gathered from the fact, that in the sole copy which has descended to us it is divided into acts and scenes. The story is one of every-day life; and none of the characters are such as people had been accustomed to find in ordinary dramatic entertainments. The piece takes its name from its hero, a young town-gallant, who is mightily enamoured of himself, and who is encouraged in the good opinion he entertains of his own person and accomplishments by Matthew Merrygreek, a poor relation, who attends him in the double capacity of companion and servant. Ralph Roister Doister is in love with a lady of property, called Custance, betrothed to Gawin Goodluck, a merchant, who is at sea when the comedy begins, but who returns before it concludes. The main incidents relate to the mode in which the hero, with the treacherous help of his associate, endeavours to gain the affections of Custance: he writes her a letter, which Merrygreek reads without due observance of the punctuation, so that it entirely perverts the meaning of the writer : he visits her while she is surrounded by her female domestics, but he is unceremoniously rejected; he resolves to
? A very interesting epistle from Udall is to be found in Sir Henry Ellis's volume (edited for the Camden Society) " Original Letters of Eminent Literary Men.” That of Udall is the first in the series.
3 It is without title-page, so that the year when it was printed cannot be ascertained; but Thomas Hacket had a licence in 1566 for the publication of "a play entituled Rauf Ruyster Duster," as it is called in the Registers of the Stationers' Company. See Extracts from those Registers published by the Shakespeare Society in 1848, Vol. i. p. 154. We may presume that it was published in that year, or in the next.
carry her by force of arms, and makes an assault upon her habitation; but with the assistance of her maids, armed with mops and brooms, she drives him from the attack. Then, her betrothed lover returns, who has been misinformed on the subject of her fidelity, but he is soon reconciled on an explanation of the facts; and Ralph Roister Doister, finding that he has no chance of success, and that he has only been duped and laughed at, makes up his mind to be merry at the wedding of Goodluck and Custance.
In all this we have no trace of any thing like a moral-play, with the exception, perhaps, of the character of Matthew Merrygreek, which, in some of its features, its love of mischief and its drollery, bears a resemblance to the Vice of the older drama*. Were the dialogue modernized, the comedy might be performed, even in our own day, to the satisfaction of many of the usual attendants at our theatres.
In considering the merits of this piece, we are to recollect that Bishop Still's "Gammer Gurton's Needle," which, until of late, was held to be our earliest comedy, was written some twenty years after “Ralph Roister Doister :" it was not acted at Cambridge until 1566, nine years subsequent to the death of Udall; and it is in every point of view an inferior production. The plot is a mere piece of absurdity, the language is provincial (well fitted, indeed, to the country where the scene is laid, and to the clownish persons engaged in it) and the manners depicted are chiefly those of illiterate rustics. The story, such as it is, relates to the loss of a needle with which Gammer Gurton had 'mended Hodge's breeches, and which is afterwards suddenly found by the hero, when he is about to sit down. The humour, generally speaking, is as coarse as the dialogue; and though it is impossible to deny that the author was a man of talents
, they were hardly such as could have produced “Ralph Roister Doister.”
* By " the older drama," we mean moral-plays, into which the Vice was introduced for the amasement of the spectators: no character so called, or with similar propensities, is to be traced in miracle-plays, unless we accept the devil in that capacity. The Vice was, in fact, the buffoon of our drama in what may be termed its second stage ; after audiences began to grow weary of plays founded merely upon Scripture-history, and when even moral-plays, in order to be relished, required the insertion of a character of broad humour, and vicious inclinations, who was sometimes to be the companion, and at others the castigator, of the personage who represented the principle of evil among mankind. The Vice of moral-plays subsequently became the fool and jester of comedy, tragedy, and history, and forms another, and an important, link of connexion between them and their immediate predecessors.
The drama which we have been accustomed to regard as our oldest tragedy, and which probably has a just claim to the distinction, was acted on 18th January, 1562, and printed in 1565'. It was originally called “Gorboduc;" but it was reprinted in 1571 under the title of “Ferrex and Porrex," and a third time in 1590 as “Gorboduc." The first three acts were written by Thomas Norton, and the last two by Thomas Sackville, afterwards Earl of Dorset, and it was performed " by the gentlemen of the Inner Temple.” . Although the form of the Greek drama is observed in “Gorboduc," and each act concluded by a chorus, yet Sir Philip Sidney, who admitted in his “ Apology of Poetry”) that it was full of "stately speeches and well-sounding phrases," could not avoid complaining that the unities of time and place had been disregarded. Thus, in the very outset and origin of our stage, as respects what may be termed the regular drama, the liberty, which allowed full exercise to the imagination of the audience, and which was afterwards happily carried to a greater excess, was distinctly asserted and maintained by Norton and Sackville. It is also to be remarked, that “Gorboduc" is the earliest known play in our language in which blank-verse was employed"; but of the introduction of blank-verse upon our public stage, we shall have occasion to speak hereafter : it was an important change, which requires to be separately considered.
We have now entered upon the reign of Elizabeth; and although, as already observed, moral-plays and even miracleplays were still acted, we shall soon see what a variety of
3 In the Hist. of Eng. Dram. Poetry and the Stage, ii. 482, it is said that the earliest edition of “Gorboduc" has no date. This is a mistake, as is shown by the copy in the collection of the Earl of Ellesmere, which has “anno 1565, Septemb. 22" at the bottom of the title-page. Mr. Hallam, in his admirable “ Introduction to the Literature of Europe," &c. (Second Edit. Vol. ii. p. 167), expresses his dissent from the position, that the three first acts were by Norton, and the two last by Sackville: the old title page states, that “ three acts were written by Thomas Norton, and the two last by Thomas Sackville." Unless the printer, William Griffith, were misinformed, this seems decisive. Norton's poetical and general abilities have not had justice done to them.
6 Richard Edwards, a very distinguished dramatic poet, who died in 1566, and who wrote the lost play of “Palamon and Arcite," which was acted before the Queen in September of that year, did not, as tar as we know, follow the example of Sackville and Norton : his “Damon and Pithias” (the only piece by him that has survived) is in rhyme. See Dodsley's “Old Plays," last edition, Vol. i. p. 177. Thomas Twine, an actor in “ Palamon and Arcite," wrote an epitaph upon its author. Ralph Roister Doister” and “Gorboduc" (the last from the unique copy of 1565) were reprinted together by the Shakespeare Society in 1847, edited by W. D. Cooper, Esq., F.S.A.
subjects, taken from ancient history, from mythology, fable, and romance, were employed for the purposes of the drama. Stephen Gosson, one of the earliest enemies of theatrical performances, writing his “Plays confuted in Five Actions” little after the period of which we are now speaking, but adverting to the drama as it had existed some years before, tells us, that “The Palace of Pleasure, the Golden Ass, the Æthiopian History, Amadis of France, and the Round Table," as well as “comedies in Latin, French, Italian, and Spanish, have been thoroughly ransacked to furnish the play-houses in London.” Hence, unquestionably, many of the materials of what is termed our romantic drama were obtained. The accounts of the Master of the Revels between 1570 and 1580 contain the names of various plays represented at court; and it is to be noted, that it was certainly the practice at a later date, and it was probably the practice at the time to which we are now adverting, to select for performance before the Queen such pieces as were most in favour with public audiences : consequently, the mention of a few of the titles of productions represented before Elizabeth at Greenwich, Whitehall, Richmond, or Nonesuch, will show the character of the popular performances of the day. We derive the following names from Mr. Peter Cunningham’s “Extracts from the Revels' Accounts,” printed for the Shakespeare Society in 1842:Lady Barbara.
Mutius Scævola. Iphigenia.
Portio and Demorantes. Ajax and Ulysses.
Titus and Gisippus. Narcissus.
Three Sisters of Mantua. Paris and Vienna
Cruelty of a Stepmother. The Play of Fortune.
The Greek Maid. Alcmæon.
Rape of the Second Helen. Quintus Fabius.
The Four Sons of Fabius. Timoclea at the Siege of Thebes. History of Sarpedon. Perseus and Andromeda.
Murderous Michael. The Painter's Daughter.
Scipio Africanus. The History of the Collier.
The Duke of Milan.
The History of Error. These are only a few out of many dramas, establishing the multiplicity of sources to which the poets of the time resorted'. Nevertheless, we find, on the same indisputable
7 " The Play of Fortune,” in the above list, is doubtless the piece which has reached us, in a printed shape, as “The Rare Triumphs of Love and Fortune:" it was acted at court as early as 1573, and again in 1582 ; but it did not come from the press until 1589, and the only known copy of it is in the library of the Earl of
authority, that moral-plays were not yet altogether discarded in court entertainments; for we read, in the original records, of productions the titles of which prove that they were pieces of that allegorical description: among these are “Truth, Faithfulness, and Mercy,” and “The Marriage of Mind and Measure,” which is expressly called "a moral.”
Our main object in referring to these pieces has been to show the great diversity of subjects which had been dramatized before 1580. In 1581 Barnabe Rich published his “Farewell to Military Profession ®,” consisting of a collection of eight novels; and at the close of the work he inserts this strange address “to the reader:"_"Now thou hast perused these histories to the end, I doubt not but thou wilt deem of them as they worthily deserve, and think such vanities more fitter to be presented on a stage (as some of them have been) than to be published in print." The fact is, that three dramas are extant which more or less closely resemble three of Rich's novels: one of them “Twelfth Night;" another, “The Weakest goeth to the Wall;" and the third the old play of “ Philotus."
Upon the manner in which the materials thus procured were then handled we have several contemporaneous authorities. George Whetstone (an author who has principally acquired celebrity by writing an earlier drama upon incidents employed by Shakespeare in his “Measure for Measure”), in the dedication of his “Promos and Cassandra," gives a compendious description of the nature of popular theatrical representations in 1578. “ The Englishman (he remarks) in this quality is most vain, indiscreet, and out of order. He first grounds his work on impossibilities; then, in three hours, runs he through the world, marries, gets
Ellesmere. The purpose of the anonymous writer was to compose an entertainment which should possess the great requisite of variety, with as much show as could at that early date be accomplished ; and we are to recollect that the court theatres possessed some unusual facilities for the purpose. The " Induction " is in blankverse, but the body of the drama is in rhyme : by permission of the late Earl of Ellesmere it was reprinted by the Roxburghe Club in 1851. “The History of the Collier," also mentioned, was perhaps the comedy subsequently known and printed as “Grim, the Collier of Croydon;" and it has been reasonably supposed (see this Vol. p. 359) that “The History of Error” was an old play on the same subject as Shakespeare's " Comedy of Errors."
8 Until recently no edition of Rich's volume of an earlier date than 1606 was known; but there is an impression of 1581 in the Bodleian Library, which was *reprinted by the Shakespeare Society in 1846.
It was reprinted for the Bannatyne Club in 1835, by J. W. Mackenzie, Esq.