Oxford Lectures on Poetry Part 24

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I have begun with these questions because I sympathise with their spirit. Everything I am going to speak of in this lecture is comparatively unimportant for the appreciation of that which is most vital in Shakespeare; and if I were allowed my choice between an hour's inspection of a performance at the Globe and a glimpse straight into his mind when he was planning the _Tempest_, I should not hesitate which to choose. Nevertheless, to say nothing of the intrinsic interest of antiquarian knowledge, we cannot make a clear division between the soul and body, or the eternal and the perishable, in works of art. Nor can we lay the finger on a line which separates that which has poetic interest from that which has none. Nor yet can we a.s.sume that any knowledge of Shakespeare's theatre and audience, however trivial it may appear, may not help us to appreciate, or save us from misapprehending, the 'soul'

of a play or a scene. If our own souls were capacious and vivid enough, every atom of information on these subjects, or again on the material he used in composing, would so a.s.sist us. The danger of devotion to such knowledge lies merely in our weakness. Research, though toilsome, is easy; imaginative vision, though delightful, is difficult; and we may be tempted to prefer the first. Or we note that in a given pa.s.sage Shakespeare has used what he found in his authority; and we excuse ourselves from asking why he used it and what he made of it. Or we see that he has done something that would please his audience; and we dismiss it as accounted for, forgetting that perhaps it also pleased _him_, and that we have to account for _that_. Or knowledge of his stage shows us the stage-convenience of a scene; and we say that the scene was due to stage-convenience, as if the cause of a thing must needs be single and simple. Such errors provoke the man who reads his Shakespeare poetically, and make him blaspheme our knowledge. But we ought not to fall into them; and we cannot reject any knowledge that may help us into Shakespeare's mind because of the danger it brings.

I cannot attempt to describe Shakespeare's theatre and audience, and much less to discuss the evidence on which a description must be based, or the difficult problems it raises. I must confine myself for the most part to a few points which are not always fully realised, or on which there is a risk of misapprehension.


Shakespeare, we know, was a popular playwright. I mean not only that many of his plays were favourites in his day, but that he wrote, mainly at least, for the more popular kind of audience, and that, within certain limits, he conformed to its tastes. He was not, to our knowledge, the author of masques composed for performance at Court or in a great mansion, or of dramas intended for a University or one of the Inns of Court; and though his company for some time played at the Blackfriars, we may safely a.s.sume that the great majority of his works were meant primarily for a common or 'public' theatre like the Globe.

The broad distinction between a 'private' and a 'public' theatre is familiar, and I need only remind you that at the former, which was smaller, provided seats even in the area, and was nowhere open to the weather, the audience was more select. Accordingly, dramatists who express their contempt for the audience, and their disapproval of those who consult its tastes, often discriminate between the audiences at the private and public theatres, and reserve their unmeasured language for the latter. It was for the latter that Shakespeare mainly wrote; and it is pretty clear that Jonson, who greatly admired and loved him, was still of opinion that he condescended to his audience.[1]

So far we seem to be on safe ground; and yet even here there is some risk of mistake. We are not to imagine that the audience at a private theatre (say the Blackfriars) accepted Jonson's dramatic theories, while the audience at the Globe rejected them; or that the one was composed chiefly of cultured and 'judicious' gentlemen, and the other of riotous and malodorous plebeians; and still less that Shakespeare tried to please the latter section in preference to the former, and was beloved by the one more than by the other. The two audiences must have had the same general character, differing only in degree. Neither of them accepted Jonson's theories, nor were the 'judicious' of one mind on that subject. The same play was frequently offered to both. Both were very mixed. The tastes to which objection was taken cannot have been confined to the mob. From our knowledge of human nature generally, and of the Elizabethan n.o.bility and gentry in particular, we may be sure of this; and Jonson himself implies it. Nor is it credible that an appreciation of the best things was denied to the mob, which doubtless loved what we should despise, but appears also to have admired what we admire, and to have tolerated more poetry than most of us can stomach.

Neither can these groundlings have formed the majority of the 'public'

audience or have been omnipotent in their theatre, when it was possible for dramatists (Shakespeare included) to say such rude things of them to their faces. We must not delude ourselves as to these matters; and in particular we must realise that the ma.s.s of the audience in both kinds of theatre must have been indifferent to the unities of time and place, and more or less so to improbabilities and to decorum (at least as we conceive it) both in manners and in speech; and that it must have liked excitement, the open exhibition of violent and b.l.o.o.d.y deeds, and the intermixture of seriousness and mirth. What distinguished the more popular audience, and the more popular section in it, was a higher degree of this indifference and this liking, and in addition a special fondness for certain sources of inartistic joy. The most prominent of these, perhaps, were noise; rant; mere bawdry; 'shews'; irrelevant songs, ballads, jokes, dances, and clownage in general; and, lastly, target-fighting and battles.[2]

We may describe Shakespeare's practice in broad and general terms by saying that he neither resisted the wishes of his audience nor gratified them without reserve. He accepted the type of drama that he found, and developed it without altering its fundamental character. And in the same way, in particular matters, he gave the audience what it wanted, but in doing so gave it what it never dreamed of. It liked tragedy to be relieved by rough mirth, and it got the Grave-diggers in _Hamlet_ and the old countryman in _Antony and Cleopatra_. It liked a 'drum and trumpet' history, and it got _Henry V._ It liked clowns or fools, and it got Feste and the Fool in _King Lear_. Shakespeare's practice was by no means always on this level, but this was its tendency; and I imagine that (unless perhaps in early days) he knew clearly what he was doing, did it deliberately, and, when he gave the audience poor stuff, would not seriously have defended himself. Jonson, it would seem, did not understand this position. A fool was a fool to him; and if a play could be called a drum and trumpet history it was at once condemned in his eyes. One can hardly doubt that he was alluding to the _Tempest_ and the _Winter's Tale_ when, a few years after the probable date of their appearance, he spoke of writers who 'make nature afraid in their plays,'

begetting 'tales, tempests, and such like drolleries,' and bringing in 'a servant-monster' or 'a nest of antiques.' Caliban was a 'monster,'

and the London public loved to gape at monsters; and so, it appears, that wonderful creation was to Jonson something like the fat woman, or the calf with five legs, that we pay a penny to see at a fair. In fact (how could he fail to take the warning?) he saw Caliban with the eyes of Trinculo and Stephano. 'A strange fish!' says Trinculo: 'were I in England now, as once I was, and had but this fish painted, not a holiday fool there but would give a piece of silver.' 'If I can recover him,'

says Stephano, 'and keep him tame and get to Naples with him, he's a present for any emperor that ever trod on neat's-leather.' Shakespeare understood his monster otherwise; but, I fancy, when Jonson fulminated at the Mermaid against Caliban, he smiled and said nothing.

But my present subject is rather the tastes of the audience than Shakespeare's way of meeting them.[3] Let me give two ill.u.s.trations of them which may have some novelty. His public, in the first place, dearly loved to see soldiers, combats, and battles on the stage. They swarm in some of the dramas a little earlier than Shakespeare's time, and the cultured dramatists speak very contemptuously of these productions, if not of Shakespeare's historical plays. We may take as an example the First Part of _Henry VI._, a feeble piece, to which Shakespeare probably contributed touches throughout, and perhaps one or two complete scenes.

It appears from the stage directions (which may be defective, but cannot well be redundant) that in this one play there were represented a pitched battle of two armies, an attack on a city wall with scaling-ladders, two street-scuffles, four single combats, four skirmishes, and seven excursions. No genuine play of Shakespeare's, I suppose, is so military from beginning to end; and we know how in _Henry V._ he laments that he must disgrace the name of Agincourt by showing four or five men with vile and ragged foils

Right ill-disposed in brawl ridiculous.

Still he does show them; and his serious dramas contain such a profusion of combats and battles as no playwright now would dream of exhibiting.

We expect these things perhaps in the English history-plays, and we find them in abundance there: but not there alone. The last Act in _Julius Caesar_, _Troilus and Cressida_, _King Lear_, _Macbeth_, and _Cymbeline_; the fourth Act of _Antony and Cleopatra_; the opening Acts of _Coriola.n.u.s_,--these are all full of battle-scenes. If battle cannot be shown, it can be described. If it cannot be described, still soldiers can be shown, and twice in _Hamlet_ Fortinbras and his army march upon the stage.[4] At worst there can be street-brawls and single fights, as in _Romeo and Juliet_. In reading Shakespeare we scarcely realise how much of this kind is exhibited. In seeing him acted we do not fully realise it, for much of it is omitted. But beyond doubt it helped to make him the most popular dramatist of his time.

If we examine Shakespeare's battles we shall observe a certain peculiarity, which is connected with the nature of his theatre and also explains the treatment of them in ours. In most cases he does not give a picture of two whole armies engaged, but makes a pair of combatants rush upon the stage, fight, and rush off again; and this pair is succeeded by a second, and perhaps by a third. This hurried series of single combats admitted of speech-making; perhaps it also gave some impression of the changes and confusion of a battle. Our tendency, on the other hand, is to contrive one spectacle with scenic effects, or even to exhibit one magnificent tableau in which n.o.body says a word. And this plan, though it has the advantage of getting rid of Shakespeare's poetry, is not exactly dramatic. It is adopted chiefly because the taste of our public is, or is supposed to be, less dramatic than spectacular, and because, unlike the Elizabethans, we are able to gratify such a taste. But there is another fact to be remembered here. Few playgoers now can appreciate a fencing-match, and much fewer a broad-sword and target fight. But the Elizabethan public went to see performances of this kind as we go to see cricket or football matches. They might watch them in the very building which at other times was used as a playhouse.[5] They could judge of the merit of the exhibition when Hotspur and Prince Henry fought, when Macduff 'laid on,' or when Tybalt and Mercutio used their rapiers. And this was probably another reason why Shakespeare's battles so often consist of single combats, and why these scenes were beloved by the simpler folk among his audience.

Our second ill.u.s.tration concerns the popular appet.i.te for musical and other sounds. The introduction of songs and dances[6] was censured as a corrupt gratification of this appet.i.te. And so it was when the songs and dances were excessive in number, irrelevant, or out of keeping with the scene. I do not remember that in Shakespeare's plays this is ever the case; but, in respect of songs, we may perhaps take Marston's _Antonio and Mellida_ as an instance of abuse. For in each of the two Parts of that play there are directions for five songs; and, since not even the first lines of these songs are printed, we must suppose that the leader of the band, or the singing actor in the company, introduced whatever he chose. In addition to songs and dances, the musicians, at least in some plays, performed between the Acts; and the practice of accompanying certain speeches by low music--a practice which in some performances of Shakespeare now has become a pest--has the sanction of several Elizabethan playwrights, and (to a slight extent) of Shakespeare. It seems clear, for example, that in _Twelfth Night_ low music was played while the lovely opening lines ('That strain again') were being spoken, and also during a part of the dialogue preceding the song 'Come away, come away, death.' Some lines, too, of Lorenzo's famous speech about music in the _Merchant of Venice_ were probably accompanied; and there is a still more conspicuous instance in the scene where Lear wakes from his long sleep and sees Cordelia standing by his side.

But, beyond all this, if we attend to the stage-directions we shall realise that in the serious plays of Shakespeare other musical sounds were of frequent occurrence. Almost always the ceremonial entrance of a royal person is marked by a 'flourish' or a 'sennet' on trumpets, cornets, or hautboys; and wherever we have armies and battles we find directions for drums, or for particular series of notes of trumpets or cornets appropriate to particular military movements. In the First Part of _Henry VI._, to take that early play again, we must imagine a dead march, two other marches, three retreats, three sennets, seven flourishes, eighteen alarums; and there are besides five directions for drums, one for a horn, and five for soundings, of a kind not specified, by trumpets. In the last three scenes of the first Act in _Coriola.n.u.s_--scenes containing less than three hundred and fifty lines--there are directions for a parley, a retreat, five flourishes, and eight alarums, with three, less specific, for trumpets, and four for drums. We find about twenty such directions in _King Lear_, and about twenty-five in _Macbeth_, a short play in which hautboys seem to have been unusually favoured.[7] It is evident that the audience loved these sounds, which, from their prevalence in pa.s.sages of special kinds, seem to have been intended chiefly to stimulate excitement, and sometimes to heighten impressions of grandeur or of awe.

But this is not all. Such purposes were also served by noises not musical. Four times in _Macbeth_, when the Witches appear, thunder is heard. It thunders and lightens at intervals through the storm-scenes in _King Lear_. Casca and Ca.s.sius, dark thoughts within them, walk the streets of Rome in a terrific thunderstorm. That loud insistent knocking which appalled Macbeth is repeated thrice at intervals while Lady Macbeth in vain endeavours to calm him, and five times while the Porter fumbles with his keys. The gate has hardly been opened and the murder discovered when the castle-bell begins its hideous alarum. The alarm-bell is used for the same purpose of intensifying excitement in the brawl that ruins Ca.s.sio, and its effect is manifest in Oth.e.l.lo's immediate order, 'Silence that dreadful bell.' I will add but one instance more. In the days of my youth, before the melodrama audience dreamed of seeing chariot-races, railway accidents, or the infernal regions, on the stage, it loved few things better than the explosion of fire-arms; and its favourite weapon was the pistol. The Elizabethans had the same fancy for fire-arms, only they preferred cannon. Shakespeare's theatre was burnt down in 1613 at a performance of _Henry VIII._, not, I suppose, as Prynne imagined, by a Providence which shared his opinion of the drama, but because the wadding of a cannon fired during the play flew to the thatch of the roof and set it ablaze. In _Hamlet_ Shakespeare gave the public plenty that they could not understand, but he made it up to them in explosions. While Hamlet, Horatio, and Marcellus are waiting for the Ghost, a flourish is heard, and then the roar of cannon. It is the custom to fire them when the King drinks a pledge; and this King drinks many. In the fencing-scene at the end he proposes to drink one for every hit scored by his beloved nephew; and the first hit is duly honoured by the cannon. Unexpected events prevented the celebration of the second, but the audience lost nothing by that. While Hamlet lies dying, a sudden explosion is heard.

Fortinbras is coming with his army. And, as if that were not enough, the very last words of the play are, 'Go, bid the soldiers shoot,' and the very last sound of the performance is a peal of ordnance. Into this most mysterious and inward of his works, it would seem, the poet flung, as if in derision of his cultured critics, well-nigh every stimulant of popular excitement he could collect: 'carnal, b.l.o.o.d.y, and unnatural acts'; five deaths on the open stage, three appearances of a ghost, two of a mad woman, a dumb-show, two men raving and fighting in a grave at a funeral, the skulls and bones of the dead, a clown bandying jests with a prince, songs at once indecent and pathetic, marching soldiers, a fencing-match, then a litter of corpses, and explosions in the first Act and explosions in the last. And yet out of this sensational material--not in spite of it, but out of it--he made the most mysterious and inward of his dramas, which leaves us haunted by thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls; and he knew that the very audience that rejoiced in ghosts and explosions would listen, even while it was waiting for the ghost, to that which the explosion had suggested,--a general disquisition, twenty-five lines long, on the manner in which one defect may spoil a n.o.ble reputation. In this strange harmony of discords, surely unexampled before or since, we may see at a glance the essence of Elizabethan drama, of its poet, and of its audience.


We have been occupied so far with characteristics of the drama which reflect the more distinctively popular tastes objected to by critics like Jonson. We may now pa.s.s on to arrangements common to all public theatres, whether the play performed were Jonson's or Shakespeare's; and in the first instance to a characteristic common to the public and private theatres alike.

As everyone knows, the female parts in stage-plays were taken by boys, youths, or men (a mask being sometimes worn in the last case). The indecorous Elizabethans regarded this custom almost entirely from the point of view of decorum and morality. And as to morality, no one, I believe, who examines the evidence, especially as it concerns the state of things that followed the introduction of actresses at the Restoration, will be very ready to dissent from their opinion. But it is often a.s.sumed as a matter beyond dispute that, on the side of dramatic effect, the Elizabethan practice was extremely unfortunate, if not downright absurd. This idea appears to me, to say the least, exaggerated. Our practice may be the better; for a few Shakespearean parts it _ought_ to be much better; but that, on the whole, it is decidedly so, or that the old custom had anything absurd about it, there seems no reason to believe. In the first place, experience in private and semi-private performances shows that female parts may be excellently acted by youths or men, and that the most obvious drawback, that of the adult male voice, is not felt to be nearly so serious as we might antic.i.p.ate. For a minute or two it may call for a slight exertion of imagination in the audience; but there is no more radical error than to suppose that an audience finds this irksome, or to forget that the use of imagination at one point quickens it at other points, and so is a positive gain. And we have further to remember that the Elizabethan actor of female parts was no amateur, but a professional as carefully trained as an actress now; while dramatically he had this advantage over the actress, that he was regarded simply as a player, and not also as a woman with an attractive or unattractive person.[8]

In the second place, if the current ideas on this subject were true, there would be, it seems to me, more evidence of their truth. We should find, for example, that when first the new fashion came in, it was hailed by good judges as a very great improvement on the old. But the traces of such an opinion appear very scanty and doubtful, while it is certain that one of the few actors who after the Restoration still played female parts maintained a high reputation and won great applause. Again, if these parts in Shakespeare's day were very inadequately performed, would not the effect of that fact be distinctly visible in the plays themselves?

The roles in question would be less important in Shakespeare's dramas, for example, than in dramas of later times: but I do not see that they are. Besides, in the Shakespearean play itself the female parts would be much less important than the male: but on the whole they are not. In the tragedies and histories, it is true, the impelling forces of the action usually belong in larger measure to men than to women. But that is because the action in such plays is laid in the sphere of public life; and in cases where, in spite of this, the heroine is as prominent as the hero, her part--the part of Juliet, Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth--certainly requires as good acting as his. As to the comedies, if we ask ourselves who are the central or the most interesting figures in them, we shall find that we p.r.o.nounce a woman's name at least as often as a man's. I understate the case. Of Shakespeare's mature comedies the _Merchant of Venice_, I believe, is the only one where this name would unquestionably be a man's, and in three of the last five it would almost certainly be a woman's--Isabella's, Imogen's, Hermione's. How shall we reconcile with these facts the idea that in his day the female parts were, on the whole, much less adequately played than the male? And finally, if the dramatists themselves believed this, why do we not find frequent indications of the belief in their prologues, epilogues, prefaces, and plays?[9]

We must conclude, it would seem, that the absence of actresses from the Elizabethan theatre, though at first it may appear to us highly important, made no great difference to the dramas themselves.


That certainly cannot be said of the construction and arrangements of the stage. On this subject a great deal has been written of late years, and as regards many details there is still much difference of opinion.[10] But fortunately all that is of great moment for our present purpose is tolerably certain. In trying to bring it out, I will begin by reminding you of our present stage. For it is the stage, and not the rest of the theatre, that is of special interest here; and no serious harm will be done if, for the rest, we imagine Shakespeare's theatre with boxes, circles, and galleries like our own, though in the shape of a more elongated horse-shoe than ours. We must imagine, of course, an area too; but there, as we shall see, an important difference comes in.

Our present stage may be called a box with one of its sides knocked out.

Through this opening, which has an ornamental frame, we look into the box. Its three upright sides (for we may ignore the bottom and the top) are composed of movable painted scenes, which are changed from time to time during the course of the play. Before the play and after it the opening is blocked by a curtain, dropped from the top of the frame; and this is also dropped at intervals during the performance, that the scenes may be changed.

In all these respects the Elizabethan arrangement was quite different.

The stage came forward to about the middle of the area; so that a line bisecting the house would have coincided with the line of footlights, if there had been such things. The stage was therefore a platform viewed from both sides and not only from the front; and along its sides, as well as in front of it, stood the people who paid least, the groundlings, sometimes punningly derided by dramatists as 'the men of understanding.' Obviously, the sides of this platform were open; nor were there movable scenes even at the back of it; nor was there any front curtain. It was overshadowed by a projecting roof; but the area, or 'yard,' where the groundlings stood, was open to the weather, and accordingly the theatre could not be darkened. It will be seen that, when the actors were on the forward part of the stage, they were (to exaggerate a little) in the middle of the audience, like the performers in a circus now. And on this forward naked part of the stage most of a Shakespearean drama was played. We may call it the main or front stage.[11]

If now we look towards the rear of this stage, what do we find? In the first place, while the back of our present-day box consists of a movable scene, that of the Elizabethan stage was formed by the 'tiring-house,' or dressing-room, of the actors. In its wall were two doors, by which entrances and exits were made. But it was not merely a tiring-house. In the play it might represent a room, a house, a castle, the wall of a town; and the doors played their parts accordingly. Again, when a person speaks 'from within,' that doubtless means that he is in the tiring-house, opens one of the doors a little, and speaks through the c.h.i.n.k. So apparently did the prompter.

Secondly, on the top of the tiring-house was the 'upper stage' or 'balcony,' which looked down on the platform stage. It is hardly possible to make brief statements about it that would be secure. For our purposes it may be imagined as a balcony jutting forward a little from the line of the tiring-house; and it will suffice to add that, though the whole or part of it was on some occasions, or in some theatres, occupied by spectators, the whole or part of it was sometimes used by the actors and was indispensably requisite to the performance of the play. 'Enter above' or 'enter aloft' means that the actor was to appear on this upper stage or balcony. Usually, no doubt, he reached it by a ladder or stair inside the tiring-house; but on occasions there were ascents or descents directly from, or to, the main stage, as we see from 'climbs the tree and is received above' or 'the citizens leap from the walls.' The reader of Shakespeare will at once remember many scenes where the balcony was used. On it, as the city wall, appeared the Governor and citizens of Harfleur, while King Henry and his train stood before the gates below. From it Arthur made his fatal leap. It was Cleopatra's monument, into which she and her women drew up the dying Antony. Juliet talked to Romeo from it; and from it Romeo ('one kiss and I'll descend') 'goeth down' to the main stage. Richard appeared there between the two bishops; and there the spectators imagined Duncan murdered in his sleep.[12] But they could not look into his chamber. The balcony could be concealed by curtains, running, like all Elizabethan stage curtains, on a rod.

In the third place, there was, towards the back of the main stage, a part that could be curtained off, and so separated from the front part of that stage. Let us call it the back stage. It is the matter about which there is most difficulty and controversy; but the general description just given would be accepted by almost all scholars and will suffice for us. Here was the curtain (more strictly, the curtains) through which the actors peeped at the audience before the play began, and at which the groundlings hurled apples and other missiles to hasten their coming or signify disapproval of them. And this 'back stage' was essential to many performances, and was used in a variety of ways. It was the room where Henry IV. lay dying; the cave of Timon or of Belarius; probably the tent in which Richmond slept before the battle of Bosworth; the cell of Prospero, who draws the curtains apart and shows Ferdinand and Miranda playing at chess within; and here, I imagine, and not on the balcony, Juliet, after drinking the potion, 'falls upon her bed within the curtains.'[13] Finally, the back stage accounts for those pa.s.sages where, at the close of a death-scene, there is no indication that the corpse was carried off the stage. If the death took place on the open stage, as it usually did, this of course was necessary, since there was no front curtain to drop; and so we usually find in the dialogue words like 'Take up the bodies' (_Hamlet_), or 'Bear them from hence' (_King Lear_). But Desdemona was murdered in her bed on the back stage; and there died also Oth.e.l.lo and Emilia; so that Lodovico orders the bodies to be 'hid,' not carried off. The curtains were drawn together, and the dead actors withdrew into the tiring-house unseen,[14]

while the living went off openly.

This triple stage is the primary thing to remember about Shakespeare's theatre: a platform coming well forward into the yard, completely open in the larger front part, but having further back a part that could be curtained off, and overlooked by an upper stage or balcony above the tiring-house. Only a few further details need be mentioned. Though scenery was unknown, there were plenty of properties, as may be gathered from the dramas and, more quickly, from the accounts of Henslowe, the manager of the Rose. Chairs, benches, and tables are a matter of course.

Kent sat in the stocks. The witches had a caldron. Imogen slept in a bed, and Iachimo crept out of his trunk in her room. Falstaff was carried off the stage in a clothes-basket. I have quoted the direction 'climb the tree.' A 'banquet' figures in Henslowe's list, and in the _Tempest_ 'several strange shapes' bring one in. He mentions a 'tomb,'

and it is possible, though not likely, that the tomb of the Capulets was a property; and he mentions a 'moss-bank,' doubtless such as that where the wild thyme was blowing for t.i.tania. Her lover, you remember, wore an a.s.s's head, and the Falstaff of the _Merry Wives_ a buck's. There were whole animals, too. 'A great horse with his legs' is in Henslowe's list; and in a play not by Shakespeare Jonah is cast out of the whale's belly on to the stage. Besides these properties there was a contrivance with ropes and pulleys, by which a heavenly being could descend from the stage-roof (the 'heaven'), as in _Cymbeline_ Jupiter descends upon his eagle. When his speech is over we find the direction 'ascends.' Soon after comes another direction: 'vanish.' This is addressed not to Jupiter but to various ghosts who are present. For there was a hollow s.p.a.ce under the stage, and a trap-door into it. Through this ghosts usually made their entrances and exits; and 'vanish' seems commonly to mean an exit that way. Through it, too, arose and sank the witches'

caldron and the apparitions shown to Macbeth. A person could speak from under the stage, as the Ghost does when Hamlet calls him 'old mole'; and the musicians could go and play there, as they do in the scene where Antony's soldiers hear strange music on the night before the battle; 'Musicke of the Hoboyes is under the Stage' the direction runs ('Hoboyes' were used also in the witch-scene just mentioned).


We have now to observe certain ways in which this stage with its arrangements influenced the dramas themselves; and we shall find that the majority of these influences are connected with the absence of scenery. In this, to begin with, lies the main, though not the whole, explanation of the shortness of the performance. In our Shakespeare revivals the drama is always considerably cut down; and yet, even where no excessive prominence is given to scenic display, the time occupied is seldom less than three hours, and often a good deal more. In Shakespeare's day, as we gather from various sources (_e.g._ from the Prologues to _Romeo and Juliet_ and _Henry VIII._), the customary time taken by the un-shortened play was about two hours. And the chief reason of this great difference obviously is that the time which we spend in setting and changing scenes his company spent in acting the piece. At a given signal certain characters appeared. Unless a placard announced the place where they were supposed to be,[15] the audience gathered this from their conversation, or in the absence of such indications asked no questions on the subject. They talked for a time and went away; and at once another set appeared. The intervals between the acts (if intervals there were, and however they were occupied) had no purpose connected with scene-changing, and must have been short; and the introduction and removal of a few properties would take next to no time from the performance.[16] We may safely a.s.sume that not less than a hundred of the hundred and twenty minutes were given to the play itself.

The absence of scenery, however, will not wholly account for the difference in question. If you take a Shakespearean play of average length and read it at about the pace usual in our revivals, you will find, I think, that you have occupied considerably more than a hundred or a hundred and twenty minutes.[17] The Elizabethan actor can hardly have spoken so slowly. Probably the position of the stage, and especially of the front part of it where most of the action took place, was of advantage to him in this respect. Standing almost in the middle of his audience, and at no great distance from any section of it, he could with safety deliver his lines much faster than an actor can now.

He could speak even a 'pa.s.sionate' speech 'trippingly on the tongue.'

Hamlet bids him do so, warns him not to mouth, and, when the time for his speech comes, calls impatiently to him to leave his d.a.m.nable faces and begin; and this is not the only pa.s.sage in Elizabethan literature which suggests that good judges objected to a slow and over-emphatic delivery. We have some actors not inferior in elocution, we must presume, to Burbage or Taylor, but even Mr. Vezin or Mr. Forbes Robertson may find it difficult to deliver blank verse intelligibly, musically, and rapidly out of our stage-box.[18]

I return to the absence of scenery, which even in this matter must be more important than the position of the stage or the preference for rapid speech. It explains, secondly, the great difference between Elizabethan and more modern plays in the number of the scenes.[19] This number, with Shakespeare, averages somewhere about twenty: it reaches forty-two in _Antony and Cleopatra_, and sinks to nine in _Love's Labour's Lost_, the _Midsummer-Night's Dream_, and the _Tempest_. In the fourth act of the first of these plays there are thirteen scenes, no one of them in the same place as the next. The average number in Schiller's plays seems to be about eight. In plays written now it corresponds not unfrequently with the number of acts.[20] The primary cause of this difference, though not the only one, is, I presume, that we expect to see appropriate surroundings, at the least, for every part of the story. Such surroundings mean more or less elaborate scenery, which, besides being expensive, takes a long time to set and change. For a dramatist accordingly who is a dramatist and wishes to hold his audience by the play itself, it is an advantage to have as few scenes as may be.

And so the absence of scenery in Shakespeare's day, and its presence in ours, result in two totally different systems, not merely of theatrical effect, but of dramatic construction.

In certain ways it was clearly an advantage to a playwright to be able to produce a large number of scenes, varying in length according to his pleasure, and separated by almost inappreciable intervals. Nor could there be any disadvantage in this freedom, if he had a strong feeling for dramatic construction, and a gift for it, and a determination to construct as well as he could. But, as a matter of fact, many, perhaps the majority, of the pre-Shakespearean dramas are put together very loosely; scene follows scene in the manner of a casual narrative rather than a play; and a good deal is admitted for the sake of its immediate attraction and not because it is essential to the plot. The freedom which we are considering, though it could not necessitate these defects, gave the widest scope for them; the majority of the audience probably was, and continued to be, well-nigh indifferent to them; and a large proportion of the plays of Shakespeare's time exhibits them in some degree. The average drama of that day has great merits of a strictly dramatic kind, but it is not well-built, it is not what we mean by 'a good play'; and if we look at it from the restricted point of view implied by that phrase we shall be inclined, I think, to believe that it would have been a better play if its author had been compelled by the stage-arrangements to halve the number of the scenes. These remarks will hold of Shakespeare himself. Some of his most delightful dramas, indeed,--for instance, the two Parts of _Henry IV._--make little or no pretence to be well-constructed wholes; and even in those which fully deserve that t.i.tle a certain amount of matter not indispensable to the plot is usually to be found. In point of construction _Oth.e.l.lo_ is the best of his tragedies, _Julius Caesar_ better than _King Lear_, and _Antony and Cleopatra_ perhaps the faultiest. To say that this depends solely on the number of scenes would be ridiculous, but still it is probably significant that the numbers are, respectively, fifteen, eighteen, twenty-one, and forty-two.

The average Elizabethan play could not, of course, have been converted into a well-built fabric by a _mere_ reduction of the number of its scenes; and in some cases no amount of rearrangement of the whole material employed could have produced this result. This means, however, on the other hand, that the Elizabethans, partly from the very simplicity of their theatrical conditions, were able to handle with decided, though usually imperfect, dramatic effect subjects which would present difficulties still greater, if not insuperable, to a playwright now. And in Shakespeare we can trace, in this respect and in others, the advantages connected with the absence of scenery. He could carry his audience freely from one country, town, house or room, to another, or from this part of a battle-field to that, because the audience imagined each place and saw none. I take an extreme example. The Third Act of _Antony and Cleopatra_, according to modern editions, contains thirteen scenes, and these are the localities a.s.signed to them: (1) a plain in Syria, (2) Rome, an ante-chamber in Caesar's house, (3) Alexandria, Cleopatra's palace, (4) Athens, a room in Antony's house, (5) the same, another room, (6) Rome, Caesar's house, (7) near Actium, Antony's camp, (8) a plain near Actium, (9) another part of the plain, (10) another part of the plain, (11) Alexandria, Cleopatra's palace, (12) Egypt, Caesar's camp, (13) Alexandria, Cleopatra's palace. I wonder how long this Act would take on our stage, where each locality must be represented. Three hours perhaps, of which the performance might occupy one-eighth. But in Shakespeare's day there was no occasion for any stage-direction as to locality throughout the Act.

Again, Shakespeare's method of working a double plot depends largely on his ability to bring the persons belonging to the two plots on to the stage in alternate scenes of no great length until the threads are combined. This is easily seen in _King Lear_; and there we can observe, further, how he varies the pitch of feeling and provides relief by interposing short quiet scenes between longer exciting ones. By this means, as I have pointed out elsewhere, the Storm-scene on the heath, which if undivided would be intolerable, is broken into three, separated by very short duologues spoken within the Castle and in prose. Again, since scene follows scene without a pause, he could make one tell on another in the way either of intensification or of contrast. We catch the effect in reading, but in our theatres it is usually destroyed by the interval. Finally, however many scenes an Act may contain, Shakespeare can keep attention glued to the play throughout the Act, because there are no intervals. So can our playwrights, because they have but one or two scenes in the Act. But in our reproductions of Shakespeare, though the number of scenes is reduced, it can scarcely ever be reduced to that extent; so that several times during an Act, and many times during the play, we are withdrawn perforce from the dramatic atmosphere into that of everyday life, solitary impatience or ennui, distracting conversation, third-rate music, or, occasionally, good music half-drowned in a babble of voices.

If we consider the characteristics on which I have been dwelling, and bear in mind also the rapidity of speech which we have found to be probable, we shall realise that a performance in Shakespeare's day, though more of the play was performed, must have been something much more variegated and changeful, and much lighter in movement, than a revival now. And this difference will have been observed by those who have seen Shakespeare acted by the Elizabethan Stage Society, under the direction of Mr. Poel, who not only played scene after scene without intervals, but secured in a considerable degree that rapidity of speech.

A minor point remains. The Elizabethan stage, we have seen, had no front curtain. The front curtain and the use of scenery naturally came in together, for the second, so far as the front stage was concerned, was dependent on the first; and as we have already glanced at some effects of the absence of the second, that of the first will require but a few additional words. It was clearly in some ways a great disadvantage; for every situation at the front of the stage had to be begun and ended before the eyes of the audience. In our dramas the curtain may rise on a position which the actors then had to produce by movements not really belonging to the play; and, what is more important, the scene may advance to a striking climax, the effect of which would be greatly diminished and sometimes destroyed if the actors had to leave the stage instead of being suddenly hidden. In Elizabethan plays, accordingly, we seldom meet with this kind of effect, though it is not difficult to discover places where it would have been appropriate. But we shall not find them, I venture to think, in tragedies. This effect, in other words, appears properly to belong to comedy and to melodrama (if that species of play is to be considered here at all); and the Elizabethans lost nothing by their inability to misuse it in tragedy, and especially at the close of a tragedy. Whether it can be artistic to end any serious scene whatever at the point of greatest tension seems doubtful, but surely it is little short of barbarous to drop the curtain on the last dying words, or, it may be, the last convulsion, of a tragic hero.

In tragedy the Elizabethan practice, like the Greek, was to lower the pitch of emotion from this point by a few quiet words, followed perhaps by sounds which, in intention at least, were majestic or solemn, and so to restore the audience to common life 'in calm of mind, all pa.s.sion spent.' Thus Shakespeare's tragedies always close; and the end of Marlowe's _Doctor Faustus_ is not _Exeunt Devils with Faustus_, but the speech beginning

Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight, And burned is Apollo's laurel-bough, That sometime grew within this learned man.

In this particular case Marlowe, if he had not been a poet, might have dispensed with the final descent, or ascent, from the violent emotions attending the catastrophe; but in the immense majority of their tragedies the Elizabethans, even if they had wished to do as we too often do, were saved from the temptation by the absence of a front curtain.[21]

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Oxford Lectures on Poetry Part 24 summary

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