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“ The people,” says the relater," laughed heartily; for the fellow had a quean to his wife.”
Another of these stories, which I shall give in the author's own words, establishes what I have already mentioned, that it was customary for the Clown to talk to the audience or the actors ad libitum.
“ At the Bull at Bishops-gate, was a play of Henry the V. (the performance which preceded Shakspeare's,] wherein the judge was to take a box on the eare; and because he was absent that should take the blow, Tarlton himselfe ever forward to please, tooke upon him to play the same judge, besides his own part of the clowne; and Knel, then playing Henry the Fifth, hit Tarleton a sound box indeed, which made the people laugh the more, because it was he: but anon the judge goes in, and immediately Tarleton in his clownes cloathes comes out, and asks the actors, What news ? O, saith one, had'st thou been here, thou shouldest have seen Prince Henry hit the judge a terrible box on the eare. What, man, said Tarlton, strike a judge! It is true, i' faith, said the other. No other like, said Tarlton, and it could not be but terrible to the judge, when the report so terrifies me, that methinks the blowe remaines still on my cheeke, that it burnes againe. The people laught at this mightily, and to this day I have heard it commended for rare; but no marvell, for he had many of these. But I would see our clownes in these days do the like. No, I warrant ye ; and yet they thinke well of themselves too.”
The last words show that this practice was not discontinued in the time of Shakspeare, and we here see that he had abundant reason for his precept in Hamlet : “ Let those that play your clowns, speak no more than is set down for them; for there be of them, that will of themselves laugh, to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too; though in the mean time some necessary question of the play be then to be considered.”
This practice was undoubtedly coeval with the English stage; for we are told that Sir Thomas More, while he lived as a page with Archbishop Moreton, (about the year 1490,) as the Christmas plays were going on in the palace, would sometimes suddenly step upon the stage," without studying for the matter," and exhibit a part of his own, which gave the audience much more entertainment than the whole
But the peculiar province of the Clown was to entertain
the audience after the play was finished, at which time themes were sometimes given to him by some of the spectators, to descant upon; but more commonly the audience were entertained by a jig. A jig was a ludicrous metrical composition, often in rhyme, which was sung by the Cluwn, who likewise, I believe, occasionally danced, and was always accompanied by a tabor and pipe. In these jigs more persons than one were sometimes introduced. The original of the entertainment which this buffoon afforded our ancestors between the acts and after the play, may be traced to the satyrical interludes of Greece, and ihe Attellans and Mimes of the Roman stage. The Exodiarii and Emboliariæ of the Mimes are undoubtedly the remote progenitors of the Vice and Clown of our ancient dramas.
No writer that I have met with, intimates that in the time of Shakspeare it was customary to exhibit more than a single dramatick piece on one day. Had any shorter pieces, of the same kind with our modern farces, (beside the pigs already mentioned,) been presented after the principal performance, some of them probably would have been printed; but there are none of them extant of an earlier date than the time of the Restoration. The practice therefore of exhibiting two dramas successively in the same afternoon, we may be assured, was not established before that period. But though our ancient audiences were not gratified by the representation of more than one drama in the same day, the entertainment in the middle of the reign of Elizabeth was diversified, and the populace diverted, by vaulting, tumbling, slight of hand, and morricedancing; and in the time of Shakspeare, by the extemporaneous buffoonery of the Clown, whenever he chose to solicit the attention of the audience : by singing and dancing between the acts, and either a song or the metrical jig already described at the end of the piece : a mixture not more heterogeneous than that with which we are now daily presented, a tragedy and a farce. In the dances, I believe, not only men, but boys in women's dresses, were introduced: a practice which prevailed on the Grecian stage, and in France till late in the last century.
The amusements of our ancestors, before the commencement of the play, were of various kinds. While some part of the audience entertained themselves with reading, or playing at cards, others were employed in less refined occupations; in drinking ale, or smoking tobacco: with these and nuts and apples they were furnished by male attendants, of
whose clamour a satirical writer of the time of James I. loudly complains. In 1633, when Prynne published his Histriomastix, women smoked tobacco in the playhouses as well as men.
It was a common practice to carry table-books to the theatre, and either from curiosity, or enmity to the author, or some other motive, to write down passages of the play that was represented ; and there is reason to believe that the imperfect and mutilated copies of one or two of Shakspeare's dramas, which are yet extant, were taken down by the ear or in short-hand during the exhibition.
At the end of the piece, the actors, in noblemen's houses and in taverns, where plays were frequently performed, prayed for the health and prosperity of their patrons; and in the publick theatres, for the king and queen. This prayer sometimes made part of the epilogue. Hence, probably, as Mr. Steevens has observed, the addition of Vivant rex et regina, to the modern play-bills.
Plays in the time of our author, began at one o'clock in the atternoon; and the exhibition was sometimes finished in two hours. Even in 1667, they commenced at three o'clock. About thirty years afterwards, in 1696) theatrical entertainments began an hour later.
We have seen that in the infancy of our stage, Mysteries were usually acted in churches; and the practice of exhibiting religious dramas in buildings appropriated to the service of religion on the Lord's-day certainly continued after the Reformation.
During the reign of Queen Elizabeth plays were exhibited in the publick theatres on Sundays, as well as on other days of the week. The licence granted by that queen to James Burbage in 1574, which has been already printed in a former page, shows that they were then represented on that day out of the hours of prayer.
We are told indeed by John Field in his Declaration of God's Judgment at Paris Garden, that in the year 1580 " the magistrates of the city of London obtained from Queene Elizabeth, that all heathenish playes and enterludes should be banished upon sabbath dayes.” This prohibition, however, probably lasted but a short time; for her majesty, when she visited Oxford in 1592, did not scruple to be present at a theatrical exbibition on Sunday night, the 24th of September in that year. During the reign of James the First, though dramatick entertainments were performed at court on Sundays, I believe, no plays were publickly represented on that day; and by the statute 3 Car. I. c. 1. their exhibition on the Sabbath day was absolutely prohibited : yet, notwithstanding this act of parliament, both plays and masques were performed at court on Sundays, during the first sixteen years of the reign of that king, and certainly in private houses, if not on the publick stage.
It has been a question, whether it was formerly a common practice to ride on horseback to the playhouse; a circumstance that would scarcely deserve consideration, if it were not in some sort connected with our author's history, a plausible story having been built on this foundation, relative to his first introduction to the stage.
The modes of conveyance to the theatre, anciently, as at present, seem to have been various; some going in coaches, others on horseback, and many by water. To the Globe playhouse the company probably were conveyed by water: to that in Blackfriurs, the gentry went either in coaches, or on horseback; and the common people on foot.
Plays in the time of King James the First, (and probably afterwards,) appear to have been performed every day at each theatre during the winter season, except in the time of Lent, when they were not permitted on the sermon days, as they were called, that is, on Wednesday and Friday; nor on the other days of the week, except by special licence; which however was obtained by a fee paid to the Master of the Revels. In the summer season the stage exhibitions were continued, but during the long vacation they were less frequently repeated. However, it appears from Sir Henry Herbert's Manuscript, that the king's company usually brought out two or three new plays at the Globe every summer.
Though, from the want of newspapers and other periodical publications, intelligence was not so speedily circulated in former times as at present, our ancient theatres do not appear to have laboured under any disadvantage in this respect; for the players printed and exposed accounts of the pieces that they intended to exbibit, which, however, did not contain a list of the characters, or the names of the actors by whom they were represented.
The long and whimsical titles which are prefixed to the quarto copies of our author's plays, were undoubtedly either written by booksellers, or transcribed from the play-bills of the time. They were equally calculated to attract the notice of the idle gazer in the walks at St. Paul's, or to draw a croud about some vociferous Autolycus, who perhaps was hired by the players thus to raise the expectations of the multitude. It is indeed absurd to suppose, that the modest Shakspeare, who has more than once apologized for his untutored lines, should in his manuscripts have entitled any of his dramas most excellent and pleasant performances.
It is uncertain at what time the usage of giving authors a benefit on the third day of the exhibition of their piece, commenced. Mr. Oldys, in one of his manuscripts, intimates that dramatick poets had anciently their benefit on the first day that a new play was represented ; a regulation which would have been very favourable to some of the ephemeral productions of modern times. I have found no authority which proves this to have been the case in the time of Shak. speare; but at the beginning of the present century it appears to have been customary in Lent for the players of the theatre in Drury Lane to divide the profits of the first representation of a new play among them.
From D'Avenant, indeed, we learn, that in the latter part of the reign of Queen Elizabeth, the poet had his benefit on the second day. As it was a general practice, in the time of Shakspeare, to sell the copy of the play to the theatre, I imagine, in such cases, an author derived no other advantage from his piece, than what arose from the sale of it. Sometimes, however, he found it more beneficial to retain the copy-right in his own hands; and when he did so, I suppose He had a benefit. It is certain that the giving authors the profits of the third exhibition of their play, which seems to have been the usual mode during a great part of the last century, was an established custom in the year 1612; for Decker, in the prologue to one of his comedies, printed in that year, speaks of the poet's third day.
The unfortunate Otway had no more than one benefit on the production of a new play; and this too, it seems, he was sometimes forced to mortgage, before the piece was acted. Southerne was the first dramatick writer who obtained the emoluments arising from two representations; and to Farquhar, in the year 1700, the benefit of a third was granted; but this appears to have been a particular favour to that gentleman; for for several years afterwards dramatick poets had only the benefit of the third and sixth performance.
The profit of three representations did not become the established right of authors till after the year 1720.