Frank Ireson.

A sketch of the pre-Shakespearian drama online

. (page 1 of 2)
Online LibraryFrank IresonA sketch of the pre-Shakespearian drama → online text (page 1 of 2)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook





No. 7.


grttfoer tcf tfje ^ette,

Delivered at the Freemasons' Tavern, on Friday,
January 9, 1884.

Imprynted by Bro r C. W. H. WYMAN,

Typographer to y e Sette, at hys Printing-hovfe in Great Qvetne

Street, over againft Lincoln's Inne Fields, within y e

Parifh of Saynt Giles in y e Fields

Londsn, m.d.ccq.lxxxv.

jus $bhion is limiteb struilg to 133 copies,
anb is imprgnteb for

emulation onlii.




DULCE Delightful, says the poet,
EST is it, and right well we know it,
DESIPERE to play the fool
I N LOCO when we're out of school.

W. M. T.



|HE paper which I have been
desired to read to you this
evening I have called,
" A Sketch of the pre-Shak-
spearian Drama." In the
hearing of it some of my listeners may
possibly come across details not known to
them : and, probably, there will be found
in it much which will be familiar to many of
them. In any case, 1 think the subject is

6 Ttf-e Pre-Skaksfearian Drama.

sufficiently interesting to warrant my thus
reminding you of its leading features.

The first point to be noticed in connexion
with the Drama in England is, that there is
no record of any attempt at acting prior to
the Conquest : before that time there was a
descriptive and indeed poetic literature, but
it contained no trace of dramatic form. The
Saxons certainly had nothing which could be
termed acting ; while the Normans who
came into England brought with them stroll-
ing minstrels and " jongleurs," who by song
and pantomimic jest, amused all classes of the
people ; but they seem to have taken no part
in concerted dramatic action, and must not
be regarded as having in any direct manner
originated it in this country.

The prototype of English Drama is the
Miracle Play. This consisted of a represen-
tation of Scriptural incident, enacted by the
clergy for the instruction of the people.
Without some such aid, in the scarcity of

The Pre-Shakspearian Drama. J

books and of the ability to read them, the
masses would have had very little chance
of becoming acquainted with the essential
facts connected with the foundation and
progress of the Christian religion. The
sacred drama may be said to date as far back
as the end of the second century, when the
Early Fathers instituted it to counteract the
worldly influence of the decaying and corrupt
Roman stage : in France this combination of
dramatic action with the service of the Romish
Church seems to have been in vogue at the
time of the Conquest, and it was brought over
to England by the monks soon after that
event. These plays were first performed, in
either Latin or French, on special occasions,
or Saints' days, with the idea of bringing
home to the illiterate some leading facts of
Bible history, or some legends of the saints to
whom the churches were so freely dedicated.
The first specimen of which we have authentic
mention is the Miracle of St. Catharine,

8 TJie Pre-Shakspearian Drama.

which seems to have been played at Dun-
stable about the year 1 1 10 : all that is known
about it is that it was acted at the instigation
of a certain Geoffrey of Gorham, and that he
borrowed copes from St. Albans for the
decoration of it. For a good example of a
miracle play we may take one by Hilarius,
written in France in the time of Stephen, or
perhaps a little later.

"In a church dedicated to St. Nicholas,
upon St. Nicholas Day, the image of the
Saint was removed, and a living actor,
dressed to represent the statue, was placed
in the shrine. When the pause was made
in the service for the acting of the Miracle,
one came in at the church-door dressed
as a rich heathen, deposited his treasure at
the shrine, said that he was going on a
journey, and called on the Saint to be
the guardian of his property. When the
heathen had gone out, thieves entered and
silently carried off the treasure. Then came

The Pre-Shakspearian Drama. 9

the heathen back and furiously raged : he
took a whip and began to thrash the image
of the Saint. But upon this the image moved,
descended from its niche, went out, and
reasoned with the robbers, threatening also to
denounce them to the people. Terrified by
this miracle, the thieves returned tremblingly,
and so in silence they brought everything
back. The statue was again in its niche,
motionless. The heathen sang his joy to a
popular tune of the time, and turned to adore
the image. Then St. Nicholas himself
appeared, bidding the heathen worship God
alone and praise the name of Christ. The
heathen was converted. The piece ended
with the adoration of the Almighty, and the
Church service was then continued."

Besides these representations of miracles
worked by the Saints, there were also
" Mysteries," which portrayed, in similar
fashion, the incidents connected with the
birth, passion, and resurrection of Christ.

io The Pre-Shakspearian Drama.

The title of " Mystery " was borrowed from
France, but it does not seem to have been
used in England, where representations of
this class were always known as " Miracle
Plays." The dialogue of these productions
was, for the most part, extremely rude and
inartificial, and they cannot be said to have
had any regular plot: they were really a
series of shows or pageants, being indeed
called by the latter name. They were generally
exhibited during the Christmas and Easter
holidays, and were frequently got up and
acted by the trading companies in the larger
cities, each guild undertaking a portion of the
performance, and sustaining a share of the
expense. At both Coventry and Chester
these plays were exhibited with a considerable
amount of elaborateness, and the MSS. used
in these two places are still in existence. A
third series remains to us, that in the Townley
collection: the latter dates from the fourteenth
century ; there are thirty-two plays in it, and

The Pre-Shakspearian Drama, u

they comprehensively range from the Creation
to Doomsday ! It is worthy of notice that
the London trading companies seem to
have taken no part in work of this cha-

When first introduced, the play was merely
a part of the Church service, and was per-
formed by the clergy only. In course of time
the interest in these productions increased,
and they were transferred to a series of
scaffolds erected at the door of the church,
the audience being outside in the street or
churchyard. From the scaffold so fixed to
a locomotive stage the transition would be
easy, and it seems probable that with this
change the acting would, to some extent, pass
from the clergy to that of laymen. A class
of itinerant actors thus came into existence,
who wheeled their stage into various towns,
and played before the people both in front of
the church and in the open streets. It seems
likely that about this time the English Ian-

12 The Pre-Shakspearian Drama.

guage was introduced into the representations,
instead of the original Latin or French.

A common addition to the rude attempts
at scenery was the representation of Hell at
a lower level than the stage : this generally
took the form of a whale's mouth, a very
ancient way of indicating the entrance to the
Infernal Regions, out of which flame and
smoke were caused to emerge : in one place
we read of a man being paid 3d. for " keeping
up Hell fire." The Devil naturally was a
prominent personage employed, and he seems
to have frequently represented the comic and
noisy element in the play : his roarings and
ragings must have contributed not a little to
the amusement of an uneducated crowd,
whose chief idea of humour would be found
in boisterous buffoonery.

At first, and especially when acted in
church, these plays consisted entirely of
Scriptural and legendary incidents, but gra-
dually they developed the latent passion for

The Pre-Shakspearian Drama. 13

acting for its own sake, the result being that
the sacred subject was constantly overlaid
with a great deal that was decidedly profane.
The proclamation of the Chester plays, for
instance, expressly excuses the introduction
of " some things not warranted by any writ,"
on the ground that it was done to " make
sport " and to " glad the hearers." The
clergy seem to have taken a great amount of
interest in the mounting and acting of these
plays, and to have entered with great zest into
their production ; so far did they carry their
passion for taking part in them, the which
was by no means prohibited by their clerical
vocation, that the bishops were occasionally
constrained to moderate the vigour of their
enthusiasm. The following excerpt from a
tract printed in the early part of Elizabeth's
reign shows how the clergy would at times
neglect their duties : " He again posteth over
it [the service] as fast as he can gallop : for
either he hath two places to serve, or else

14 The Pre-Shakspearian Drama.

there are some games to be played in the after-
noon, as lying for the whetstone, heathenishe
dauncing for a ring, a beare or a bull to be
bayted, or else jack-an-apes to ride on horse-
back, or an enterlude to be played : and if
no place else can be gotten, it must be done
in the church ! "

These Miracle Plays were in vogue shortly
after the Conquest, and continued to be
popular until about the end of Elizabeth's
reign, the last one being acted at Kendal in
the reign of James I. : they were, previously
to the introduction of printing, one of the
principal means of teaching the people, and,
after their fashion, seemed to have done good
service to that end. We may here parenthe-
tically recall the fact, that in England the
women's parts were always impersonated by
boys down to the time of Charles II.; during
the reign of that lively monarch women
appeared for the first time upon the stage,
much to the disgust of the Puritans, though

The Pre-Skakspearian Drama. 15

for some time previously their employment as
actresses had been common in Spain, Italy,
and France.

We have already seen that after a time
there were introduced into these Miracle
Plays various representations and characters
not specifically referred to either in Scripture
history or saintly legend : this was probably
done partly for the sake of variety, many
comic characters being introduced to amuse
the people, and partly because it was found
that a much better and more forcible por-
trayal of Biblical history was rendered possible
by the introduction of allegorical characters.
As the presentation of these Miracle Plays
became common, we find that there were
gradually introduced into them impersona-
tions of many of the virtues and vices, thus
lending reality to the show, and giving
visible reason for much of the action which
took place. It was in this way that the
Moral Plays came into existence. They may
B 2

1 6 The Pre-Shakspearian Drama.

be defined as plays designed to illustrate and
enforce some moral precept, to which end
there were introduced into them allegorical
figures, who personated various passions,
virtues, and sins commonly to be met with.
These characters, as they became more
numerous, interfered to a certain degree with
the progress of the action : so much so that
in some pieces the Scriptural characters fell
quite into the background; and thus, in
course of time, what seems to have been at
first designed as a kind of poetical embellish-
ment to an historical drama became a new
species of drama unconnected with history.
These Moral Plays were in a considerable
state of advancement early in the reign of
Henry VI., and they appear to have existed
side by side with the Miracle Plays until both
were gradually extinguished by the regular
drama, their life ending at about the date
of the death of Shakspeare. Both these
forms of entertainment seldom lasted over an

The Pre-Shakspearian Drama. 17

hour in performance, and of those which
were in two parts each part was exhibited on
a separate day.

Besides allegorical personages, there were
two standing characters very prominent in
Moral Plays, the Devil and Vice. The
Devil was, no doubt, introduced from the
Miracle Plays, where he had figured so
amusingly : he was made as hideous as pos-
sible by his mask and dress, the latter being
generally of a shaggy and hairy character, and
he was duly provided with a tail : his ordi-
nary exclamation on entering was, " Ho, ho,
ho ! what a felowe am I ! " and he was much
given to roaring and crying out, especially
when he was belaboured by his constant
companion, Vice. The latter had various
names, according to the sin which he repre-
sented, and appeared in many disguises : one
of his most frequent costumes was that of the
common fool, and he seems to have constantly
misconducted himself to even a greater extern

1 8 Ttte Pre-Shakspearian Drama.

than did the Devil, who generally wound up
his career by taking him upon his back and
running off with him to Hell. He occasion-
ally appeared by himself as an independent
character. In the " Life and Repentance of
Mary Magdalene " we find him performing
the part of her lover, and recommending her
not to make " two hells instead of one," but to
live merrily in this world, since she is sure to
be damned in the next. The later Moral
Plays were written quite independently of
Scriptural or saintly associations : one of
them, produced during the reign of Eliza-
beth, was wholly political in its design. It
is interesting as being one of the earliest
productions in which the stage was employed
as a vehicle for satirising and denouncing the
political abuses of the day.

So much for the Miracle and Moral Plays,
which, as has been stated, died out at the
end of the reign of Elizabeth : a modified
form of them, known as Pageants or Masks,

The Pre-Shakspearian Drama. 19

and consisting of processions of various kinds
existed for nearly a century later, and was
then incorporated with the regular drama.
Readers of Walter Scott's " Kenilworth " will
remember that the Pageant and Mask were
popular forms of entertainment in the time
of Elizabeth, the former being of a purely
spectacular character. While the latter may
be said to have occupied an intermediate
space between Pageant and Play.

The connecting link between the Moral
Plays and the Drama proper is to be found
in the Interludes^ which came into fashion in
the time of Henry VIII., and were gradually
developed into fuller form during the sixteenth
century. John Heywood, a musician of
Henry's household, set the first example of
composing interludes quite independently of
allegorical materials ; some of his " mery
plays " were distinctly comic, and their pre-
scribed action nothing less than farcical.

We may pause for a moment to observe

2O The Pre-Shakspearian Drama.

the extraordinary manner in which, in the
middle of the sixteenth century, " our drama
and our dramatic literature rose," as a well-
known writer puts it, " with all but unequalled
swiftness to the highest perfection to which
they have attained." For some five hundred
years the only dramatic art in England was
to be found in the Miracle and Moral Plays,
which were slowly developed in extent and
dialogue, as the people gradually acquired
intelligence and some interest in things
refined. Then during the half-century of
the reign of Elizabeth we find an advance
in both dramatic and literary art, which is
rightly deemed marvellous. This was due to
various causes, amongst which may be named
the more extended introduction of printing,
the cultivation of classical studies in the
universities and schools, and the general
increase in the political tranquillity and
material prosperity of the people. Account
for it as we will, the fact remains that during

The Pre-Shakspearian Drama. 21

the Elizabethan period the English Drama
made a great stride from comparative infancy
to a maturity which has certainly never been
surpassed in the history of our dramatic
literature, and with which the name of
Shakspeare must be inseparably connected.

To complete our sketch of the pre-
Shakspearian drama it now remains to
mention the earliest plays extant, which may
be considered to have originated the various
styles used for these productions, and the
principal authors concerned in its foundation
and early advancement. It may here be
observed that the term " Comedy," was,
during this period, much more inclusive in
its meaning than in modern times : it was
synonymous, in fact, with our word " Play."
Hamlet, it will be remembered, after he has
had the tragedy exhibited before the king and
queen, exclaims,

" For if the king like not the comedy," &c.
The term "Tragedy," on the other hand,

22 The Pre-Shakspearian Drama.

pertained not only to plays of a tragic nature,
but to any serious narrative in verse.

In the earliest specimen of English
Comedy which has come down to us we have
also the first avowed dramatic imitation in
English of the ancients. This was " Ralph
Roister Doister," which was probably written
before the beginning of Elizabeth's reign : the
author was Nicholas Udall, who was a master
first at Eton, and then at Westminster school.
It was written for the Eton boys to perform,
and was admittedly a copy, as far as concerns
style, of Plautus and Terence. It was divided
into acts and scenes, and had nine male and
four female characters, its time of performance
being two hours. Another comedy of about
the same date, named " Misogonus," had its
scene laid in Italy, and was evidently adapted
from some Italian play. A third early
comedy was " Gammer Gurton's Needle,"
written by Still, afterwards Bishop of Bath
and Wells ; this was acted at Cambridge in

The Pre-Shakspearian Drama. 23

1566, and is remarkable as the first ex-
isting English play that was acted at either

The earliest piece which can properly be
termed a tragedy was written by Thomas
Sackville (afterwards Earl of Dorcet), and
Thos. Norton, a barrister : it was acted before
the Queen at Whitehall in 1561. It bears
two names, "The Tragedy of Gorboduc," or,
more correctly, " The Tragedy of Ferrex and
Porrex," and its plot is based upon an old
British legend : this production is noticeable
as being the first English play written in
blank verse. The tragedy of " Julius Caesar,"
which followed soon after it, is the earliest
instance on record of English dramatisation
of Roman history.

At about this time the dramatic field would
seem to have been about equally divided
between the later Moral Plays and the earlier
" Comedies, tragedies, interludes, and stage
plays," as a print of the time has it ; soon,

24 The Pre-Shakspearian Drama.

however, the former became confined to
country places, and ultimately died out

The immediate predecessors of Shakspeare
did their part in improving the drama, and
two of them may be named as having done
good work to this end, Lyly and Marlowe.
The former was the originator of that fan-
tastic style of writing and speaking known
as Euphuism, which became so fashionable
in his time: the latter, Christopher Marlowe,
was a writer of considerable power, who
has been termed, and not unjustly, the
father of English dramatic poetry : this
title has been given to him in consideration
of the excellent service which he did in
refining and generally improving the standard
of play-writing in his day he may be said
to have prepared the way for his great
successor, by his influence on the public
taste and appreciative power.

Of the younger contemporaries of

TIu Pre-Shakspearian Drama. 25

Shakspeare it will be sufficient here to
mention Ben Jonson, Beaumont, Fletcher,
Massinger, Shirley, and Ford. A criticism of
their work would exceed the limits of this

To recapitulate: it has been shown that
the Drama in England had its origin in reli-
gious worship ; and that some five centuries
elapsed between its introduction by monkish
hands in a tongue " not understanded of the
people," and its full and popular development
under the prolific and versatile genius of
Shakspeare. Its emancipation as a form of
art, and especially in conjunction with lite-
rature, progressed but slowly during the
greater part of this period : at the end of
that time, however, its advance towards ma-
turity became most thorough and rapid. The
termination of the Elizabethan age marks an
epoch in history which will be looked back
upon with interest and admiration so long as
the English language shall exist, and the

26 The Pre-Shakspearian Drama.

period is one at which may fittingly be ter-
minated this short and necessarily slight
sketch of the origin and early development
of the English Drama.





Issued to the Members of the Sette of Odd Volumes,

Imprynted by Br<f C. W. H. WYMAN,

Typographer vnto y 8 Sette, at hys Printinge-hovfe in Great

Qveene Street, over agaynft Lincoln's Inne Fields, wythin

y Paryfhe of Saynt Giles in y e Fields

in Londonne.

" Books that can be held in the hand, and carried to the fire-
side, are the best after all." Samuel Johnson.

"The writings of the wise are the only riches our posterity
cannot squander." Charles Lamb.

A Biographical and Bibliographical Fragment, az Pages.
Presented on November the sth ; 1880, by His Oddship
C. W. H. WYMAN. ist Edition limited to 25 copies.

(Subsequently enlarged to 50 copies.)

II. @lo!3o grappa Snglicana.

By the late J.TROTTERBROCKETT,F.S. A., London and New-
castle, author of "Glossary of North Country Words,"
to which is prefixed a Biographical Sketch of the Author
by FREDERICK BLOOMER. 94 Pages. Presented on July
the 7th, 1882, by His Oddship BERNARD QUARITCH.

Edition limited to 150 copies.

III. * Sofet of i TO Volume*

from 1878 to 1883. Carefylly Compiled and painsfvlly Edited
by y* vnwprthy Historiographer to y 6 Sette, Brother and
V ice-President WILLIAM MORT THOMPSON, and produced
by y* order and at y* charges of Hys Oddship y e President
and Librarian of y e Sette, Bro. BERNARD QUARITCH.
Presented on April the isth, 1883, by His

Edition limited to 150 copies.

IV. Eobea arlantt;

Or Posies for Rings, Hand-kerchers, & Gloves, and such
pretty Tokens that Lovers send their Loves. London, 1674.
A Reprint. And Ye Garland of Ye Odd Volumes, (pp, 102.)
Presented on October the i2th, 1883, by Bro. JAMES
ROBERTS BROWN. Edition limited to 250 copies.

V. uwn Stone

A brief Accompt of y genuine Article, those who performed
y* same, and y* Masters in y e facultie. From 1702 to
1714. (pp. 40.) Presented on July the 13th, 1883, by


Edition limited to xoo copies.

VI. a Ttrp <tfo Sream.

Related by His Oddship Bro. W. M. THOMPSON, President
of the Sette of Odd Volumes, at the Freemasons' Tavern,


Great Queen Street, on June ist, 1883. (pp. 26.) Pre-
sented on July the xath, 1883, by His Oddship W. MORT
THOMPSON. Edition limited to 250 copies.

VII. Collej: CJ)tromanttae.

Being a Compleate Manualle of y Science and Arte of
Expoundynge y e Past, y e Presente, y* Future, and ye
Charactere, by y* Scrutinie of y* Hande, y 6 Gestures
thereof, and y Chirographie. Codicillus I. CHIROGNOMY
(pp. 1 1 8.) Presented on November the and, by Bro. ED.
HERON-ALLEV. Edition limited to 133 copies.

VIII. intaglio Ungrabing: Past anfc

An Address by Bro. EDWARD RENTON, delivered at the
Freemasons' Tavern, Great Queen Street, on December 5,
1884. (pp. 74.) Presented to the Sette by His Oddship
EDWARD F. WYMAN. Edition limited to 200 copies.


I. Inaugural &&fcreS

of His Oddship, W. M. THOMPSON, Fourth President
of the Sette of Odd Volumes, delivered at the Freemasons'
Tavern, Great Queen Street, on his taking office on April
i3th, 1883, &c. (pp. 31.) Printed by order of Ye Sette,
and issued on May the 4th, 1883.

Edition limited to 250 copies.

II. Cofcev Cf)tromanttae.

Appendix A. Dactylomancy, or Finger-ring Magic,
Ancient, Mediaeval, and Modern, (pp. 34.) Presented
on October the i2th, 1883, by Bro. ED. HERON-ALLEN.

Edition limited to 133 copies.

III. & Present'* $er*tflage.

Spoken by rffs Oddship W. M. THOMPSON, Fourth
President of the Sette of Odd Volumes, at the Freemasons'
Tavern, Great Queen Street, at the Fifty-eighth Meeting
of the Sette, on December jth, 1883. (pp. 15.)

Edition limited to 250 copies.

IV. fot augural

of His Oddship EDWARD F. WYMAN, Fifth President


Online LibraryFrank IresonA sketch of the pre-Shakespearian drama → online text (page 1 of 2)