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A BRIEF VIEW OF DRAMATIC POETRY, FROM THE BIRTH OF SHAKSPEARE TO THE PERIOD OF HIS COMMENCEMENT AS A WRITER FOR THE STAGE, ABOUT THE YEAR 1590; WITH CRITICAL NOTICES OF THE DRAMATIC POETS WHO FLOURISHED DURING THAT INTERVAL.
Ir is remarkable that the era of the birth of Shakspeare should occur in almost intermediate contact with those periods which mark the first appearance of what may be termed legitimate tragedy and comedy. In 1561-2, was exhibited the tragedy of Ferrex and Porrex, written by Thomas Norton, and Thomas Sackville, Lord Buckhurst, "the first specimen," observes Mr. Warton," in our language of an heroick tale written in verse, and divided into acts and scenes, and cloathed in all the formalities of a regular tragedy * ;” in 1564, as is well known, the leading object of our work, the great poet of nature, was born; and, in 1566, was acted at Christ's College, Cambridge, under the quaint title of Gammer Gurton's Needle, the first play, remarks Wright, "that looks like a regular comedy." +
Previous to the exhibition of these pieces, the public had been contented with Mysteries, Moralities, and Interludes; the first of these, exclusively occupied by miracles and scriptural narratives, originated with the ecclesiastics so far back as the eleventh century ‡; the second, consisting chiefly of allegorical personification, seems to have arisen about the middle of the fifteenth century §; and the third, a species of farce, or, as Jonson defines them, something played at the intervals of festivity, became prevalent during the reign of Henry the Eighth.
* Warton's Hist. of English Poetry, vol. iii. p. 355.
+ Vide Historia Histrionica.
Reed's Shakspeare, vol. iii. p. 6. 11. See, also, Percy and Warton.
Reed's Shakspeare, vol. iii. p. 29; and Warton's Hist. of English Poetry, vol. ii.
The examples, however, which were now furnished by Sackville and Still, in the production of Gorboduc *, and Gammer Gurton, were not lost upon their age; and to the ideas of legitimate fable emanating from these sources, are also to be added those derived from the now frequent custom of acting plays in the schools and universities, in imitation of the dramas of Plautus and Terence. To these co-operating causes may be ascribed the numerous tragedies and plays which appeared between the years 1566 and 1590, principally written by men who had been educated at the universities, and who, in the serious drama, endeavoured to support the stately and declamatory style of Gorboduc.
It is to this period, also, that we must refer for the epoch of the historical drama, or, what were called, in the language of their times, Histories, a gradual improvement, it is true, on the allegorical Dramatis Personæ of the moralities, but which, in the interval elapsing between 1570 and 1590, received a consistency and form, a materiality and organisation, which only required the animating fire of Shakspeare's muse to kindle into life and immortality.
For the prevalence and popularity of this species of play, anterior to the productions of our poet, we are probably indebted to the publication of The Mirrour for Magistrates, a poetical miscellany, of which four editions were printed between 1564 and 1590, and where the most remarkable personages in English history are brought forward relating the story of their own disasters.
Another and very popular species of dramatic composition, at this era, may be satisfactorily deduced from the strong attachment still existing for the ancient moralities, in which the most solemn and serious subjects were often blended with the lowest scenes of farce and broad humour; for though the taste of the educated part of the public was chastened and improved by the classical tragedy of Sackville, and by the translations also of Gascoigne, who, in 1566, pre
* See Ancient British Drama, vol. i. both for this play and Gammer Gurton's Needle, as edited by Walter Scott.
sented his countrymen with Jocasta from Euripides, and The Supposes, a regular comedy, from Ariosto, yet the lower orders still lingered for the mingled buffoonery of their old stage, and tragicomedy became necessary so catch their applause. This apparently heterogenous compound was long the most fascinating entertainment of the scenical world; nor were even the wildest features of the allegorical drama unrepresented; for the interlude and, subsequently, the masque, were frequently lavish in the creation of personages equally as extravagant and grotesque as any which the fifteenth century had dared to produce.
To this enumeration of the various kinds of dramatic poetry which preceded the efforts of Shakspeare, one more, of a very singular nature, must be added, the production of Richard Tarleton, the celebrated jester and comedian, who, previous to 1589, or during the course of that year, exhibited a play in two parts, called "The Seven Deadlie Sins." * The piece itself has perished, but the Platt, or groundwork, of the Second Part, having been preserved, we find that the preceding portion had been occupied in exemplifying the sins of Pride, Gluttony, Wrath, and Avarice, while Envy, Sloth, and Lechery, were reserved for its successor. The plan which Tarleton pursued, in illustrating the effects of these sins, was by selecting scenes and passages from the plays of various authors, and combining them into a whole by the connecting medium of chorusses, interlocutors, and pantomimic show. Thus the Second Part is composed from three plays, namely, Sackville's Gorboduc, and two, now lost, entitled Sardanapalus and Tereus, while the moralisation and connection are introduced and supported by alternate monologues in the persons of Henry the Sixth, and Lidgate, the monk of Bury. This curious specimen of scenic exhibition may not unaptly receive the appellation of the Composite Drama.
After this short general sketch of the progress of dramatic poetry
Reed's Shakspeare, vol. iii. p. 404.
from 1564 to 1591, it will be necessary to descend to some particular criticism on the chief productions which graced the stage during this interval; an attempt which we shall conduct chronologically, under the names of their respective authors.
L. SACKVILLE, TROMAS, Though the tragedy of Sackville was exhibited before Queen Elizabeth at Whitehall, on the 18th of January, 1561-2, it did not reach the press until 1565, when a spurious edition was published under the title of The Tragedie of Gorboduc. This piracy brought forth a legitimate copy in 1571. from the press of John Daye, which was now called The Tragedie of Ferrex and Porrer; but the nomenclature was again altered in a third edition, printed for Edward Alde, in 1590 reassuming its first and more popular denomination of The Troonde of Gorfeduc.
The first and third editions inform us in their title-pages, that "three acts were written by Thomas Norton, and the two last by Thomas Sackville," a co-partnership which, but for this intimation, would not have been suspected, for the whole has the appearance, both in matter and style, of having issued from one and the same
If the mechanism of this play, which Warton justly calls the "first genuine English Tragedy *" approximate in the minor parts of its construction to a classical type, being regularly divided into acts and scenes, with a chorus of British sages closing every act save the last, yet does it evince, in many other respects, the infancy of dramatic art in this country. Every act is preceded by an elabotate Dumb Show, allegorically depicting the business of the immediately succeeding scenes, a resource, the crude nature of which sufficiently points out the stage of poetry that gave it birth. Nor is the conduct of the fable less inconsistent with the exterior formalities of the piece, the unities of time and place being openly violated, and the chronological detail of history, or rather of the fabulous annals of
the age, closely followed. The plot, too, is sterile and uninteresting, and the passions are touched with a feeble and ineffective hand.
The great merit, indeed, of Gorboduc, is in its style and versification, in its moral and political wisdom, qualities which recommended it to the notice and encomium of Sir Philip Sidney, who tells us, that "Gorboduc is full of stately speeches, and well sounding phrases, climbing to the heighth of Seneca his style, and as full of notable morality, which it doth most delightfully teach.” * Declamation and morality, however, are not the essentials of tragedy; the first, indeed, is a positive fault, and the second should only be the result of the struggle and collision of the passions. We must, therefore, limit the beneficial example of Sackville to purity and perspicuity of diction, to skill in the structure of his numbers, and to truth and dignity of sentiment. If to these virtues of composition, though occasionally encumbered by a too unbending rigidity of style, his contemporaries had paid due attention, we should have escaped that torrent of tumor and bombast which, shortly afterwards, inundated the dramatic world, and which continued to disgrace the national taste during the whole period to which this chapter is confined.
2. EDWARDS, RICHARD. This poet, one of the gentlemen of Queen Elizabeth's chapel, and master of the children there, was the author of two plays, under the titles of Damon and Pithias, and Palamon and Arcite. The former of these was acted before the Queen, at court, in 1562, and first published in 1571, by Richard Jones, who terms it The excellent comedie of two the moste faithfullest freendes Damon and Pithias; it is an early specimen of tragi-comedy, and written in rhyme, the inferior characters exhibiting a vein of coarse humour, and the more elevated, some touches of pathos, which the story, indeed, could scarcely fail to elicit, and some faint attempts at
* Defence of Poesie, pp. 561, 562.-Vide Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia, folio, 7th. edit. 1629.