Shakespeare and the Modern Stage - with Other Essays
by Sir Sidney Lee
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With Other Essays



Author of "A Life of William Shakespeare"

London Archibald Constable and Company Limited 1907


The eleven papers which are collected here were written between 1899 and 1905. With the exception of one, entitled "Aspects of Shakespeare's Philosophy," which is now printed for the first time, they were published in periodicals in the course of those six years. The articles treat of varied aspects of Shakespearean drama, its influences and traditions, but I think that all may be credited with sufficient unity of intention to warrant their combination in a single volume. Their main endeavour is to survey Shakespearean drama in relation to modern life, and to illustrate its living force in current affairs. Even in the papers which embody researches in sixteenth- or seventeenth-century dramatic history, I have sought to keep in view the bearings of the past on the present. A large portion of the book discusses, as its title indicates, methods of representing Shakespeare on the modern stage. The attempt is there made to define, in the light of experience, the conditions which are best calculated to conserve or increase Shakespeare's genuine vitality in the theatre of our own day.

In revising the work for the press, I have deemed it advisable to submit the papers to a somewhat rigorous verbal revision. Errors have been corrected, chronological ambiguities due to lapse of time have been removed, passages have been excised in order to avoid repetition, and reference to ephemeral events which deserve no permanent chronicle have been omitted. But, substantially, the articles retain the shape in which they were originally penned. The point of view has undergone no modification. In the essays dealing with the theatres of our own time, I have purposely refrained from expanding or altering argument or illustration by citing Shakespearean performances or other theatrical enterprises which have come to birth since the papers were first written. In the last year or two there have been several Shakespearean revivals of notable interest, and some new histrionic triumphs have been won. Within the same period, too, at least half a dozen new plays of serious literary aim have gained the approval of contemporary critics. These features of current dramatic history are welcome to playgoers of literary tastes; but I have attempted no survey of them, because signs are lacking that any essential change has been wrought by them in the general theatrical situation. My aim is to deal with dominant principles which underlie the past and present situation, rather than with particular episodes or personalities, the real value of which the future has yet to determine.

My best thanks are due to my friend Sir James Knowles, the proprietor and editor of The Nineteenth Century and After, for permission to reproduce the four articles, entitled respectively, "Shakespeare and the Modern Stage," "Shakespeare in Oral Tradition," "Shakespeare in France," and "The Commemoration of Shakespeare in London." To Messrs Smith, Elder, & Co., I am indebted for permission to print here the articles on "Mr Benson and Shakespearean Drama," and "Shakespeare and Patriotism," both of which originally appeared in The Cornhill Magazine. The paper on "Pepys and Shakespeare" was first printed in the Fortnightly Review; that on "Shakespeare and the Elizabethan Playgoer" in "An English Miscellany, presented to Dr Furnivall in honour of his seventy-fifth birthday" (1901); that on "The Municipal Theatre" in the New Liberal Review; and that on "A Peril of Shakespearean Research" in The Author. The proprietors of these publications have courteously given me permission to include the articles in this volume. The essay on "Aspects of Shakespeare's Philosophy" was prepared for the purposes of a popular lecture, and has not been in type before.

In a note at the foot of the opening page of each essay, I mention the date when it was originally published. An analytical list of contents and an index will, I hope, increase any utility which may attach to the volume.


1st October 1906.






I. The Perils of the Spectacular Method of Production 1

II. The Need for Simplifying Scenic Appliances 4

III. Consequences of Simplification. The Attitude of the Shakespearean Student 7

IV. The Pecuniary Experiences of Charles Kean and Sir Henry Irving 9

V. The Experiment of Samuel Phelps 11

VI. The Rightful Supremacy of the Actor 12

VII. The Example of the French and German Stage 16

VIII. Shakespeare's Reliance on the "Imaginary Forces" of the Audience 18

IX. The Patriotic Argument for the Production of Shakespeare's Plays constantly and in their variety on the English Stage 23



I. An Imaginary Discovery of Shakespeare's Journal 25

II. Shakespeare in the role of the Ghost on the First Production of Hamlet in 1602 27

III. Shakespeare's Popularity in the Elizabethan Theatre 29

IV. At Court in 1594 31

V. The Theatre an Innovation in Elizabethan England 36

VI. Elizabethan Methods of Production 38

VII. The Contrast between the Elizabethan and the Modern Methods 43

VIII. The Fitness of the Audience an Essential Element in the Success of Shakespeare on the Stage 46



I. The Reception of the News of Shakespeare's Death 49

II. The Evolution in England of Formal Biography 51

III. Oral Tradition concerning Shakespeare in Theatrical Circles 57

IV. The Testimonies of Seventeenth-century Actors 61

V. Sir William D'Avenant's Devotion to Shakespeare's Memory 69

VI. Early Oral Tradition at Stratford-on-Avon 73

VII. Shakespeare's Fame among Seventeenth-century Scholars and Statesmen 78

VIII. Nicholas Rowe's Place among Shakespeare's Biographers. The Present State of Knowledge respecting Shakespeare's Life 79



I. Pepys the Microcosm of the Average Playgoer 82

II. The London Theatres of Pepys's Diary 85

III. Pepys's Enthusiasm for the Later Elizabethan Drama 90

IV. Pepys's Criticism of Shakespeare. His Admiration of Betterton in Shakespearean roles 93

V. The Garbled Versions of Shakespeare on the Stage of the Restoration 102

VI. The Saving Grace of the Restoration Theatre. Betterton's Masterly Interpretation of Shakespeare 109



I. A Return to the Ancient Ways 111

II. The Advantages of a Constant Change of Programme. The Opportunities offered Actors by Shakespeare's Minor Characters. John of Gaunt 113

III. The Benefit of Performing the Play of Hamlet without Abbreviation 116

IV. Mr Benson as a Trainer of Actors. The Succession to Phelps 119



I. The True Aim of the Municipal Theatre 122

II. Private Theatrical Enterprise and Literary Drama. The Advantages and Disadvantages of the Actor-Manager System. The Control of the Capitalist 123

III. Possibilities of the Artistic Improvement of Theatrical Organisation in England 127

IV. Indications of a Demand for a Municipal Theatre 129

V. The Teaching of Foreign Experience. The Example of Vienna 134

VI. The Conditions of Success in England 138



I. The Conflicting Attitudes of Bacon and Shakespeare to Formal Philosophy 142

II. Shakespeare's "Natural" Philosophy. Concealment of his Personality in his Plays 148

III. His Lofty Conception of Public Virtue. Frequency of his Denunciation of Royal "Ceremony" 152

IV. The Duty of Obedience to Authority 161

V. The Moral Atmosphere of Shakespearean Drama 164

VI. Shakespeare's Insistence on the Freedom of the Will 166

VII. His Humour and Optimism 169



I. The Natural Instinct of Patriotism. Dangers of Excess and Defect 170

II. An Attempt to Co-ordinate Shakespeare's Detached Illustrations of the Working of Patriotic Sentiment. His Ridicule of Bellicose Ecstasy. Coriolanus illustrates the Danger of Disavowing Patriotism 172

III. Criticism of One's Fellow-countrymen Consistent with Patriotism. Shakespeare on the Political History of England. The Country's Dependence on the Command of the Sea. The Respect Due to a Nation's Traditions and Experience 179

IV. Shakespeare's Exposure of Social Foibles and Errors 184

V. Relevance of Shakespeare's Doctrine of Patriotism to Current Affairs 187



I. An Alleged Meeting of Peele, Ben Jonson, Alleyn, and Shakespeare at "The Globe" in 1600 188

II. The Fabrication by George Steevens in 1763 of a Letter signed "G. Peel" 190

III. Popular Acceptance of the Forgery. Its Unchallenged Circulation through the Eighteenth, Nineteenth, and Twentieth Centuries 194



I. Amicable Literary Relations between France and England from the Fourteenth to the Present Century 198

II. M. Jusserand on Shakespeare in France. French Knowledge of English Literature in Shakespeare's day. Shakespeare in Eighteenth-century France. Eulogies of Victor Hugo and Dumas pere 201

III. French Misapprehensions of Shakespeare's Tragic Conceptions. Causes of the Misunderstanding 206

IV. Charles Nodier's Sympathetic Tribute. The Rarity of his Pensees de Shakespeare, 1801 211



I. Early Proposals for a National Memorial of Shakespeare in London 214

II. The Cenotaph in Westminster Abbey 215

III. The Failure of the Nineteenth-century Schemes 217

IV. The National Memorial at Stratford-on-Avon 219

V. Shakespeare's Association with London 226

VI. The Value of a London Memorial as a Symbol of his Universal Influence 228

VII. The Real Significance of Milton's Warning against a Monumental Commemoration of Shakespeare 230

VIII. The Undesirability of making the Memorial serve Utilitarian Purposes 235

IX. The Present State of the Plastic Art. The Imperative Need of securing a Supreme Work of Sculpture 236





[Footnote 1: This paper was first printed in The Nineteenth Century, January 1900.]


Without "the living comment and interpretation of the theatre," Shakespeare's work is, for the rank and file of mankind, "a deep well without a wheel or a windlass." It is true that the whole of the spiritual treasures which Shakespeare's dramas hoard will never be disclosed to the mere playgoer, but "a large, a very large, proportion of that indefinite all" may be revealed to him on the stage, and, if he be no patient reader, will be revealed to him nowhere else.

There are earnest students of Shakespeare who scorn the theatre and arrogate to themselves in the library, often with some justification, a greater capacity for apprehending and appreciating Shakespeare than is at the command of the ordinary playgoer or actor. But let Sir Oracle of the study, however full and deep be his knowledge, "use all gently." Let him bear in mind that his vision also has its limitations, and that student, actor, and spectator of Shakespeare's plays are all alike exploring a measureless region of philosophy and poetry, "round which no comprehension has yet drawn the line of circumspection, so as to say to itself 'I have seen the whole.'" Actor and student may look at Shakespeare's text from different points of view: but there is always as reasonable a chance that the efficient actor may disclose the full significance of some speech or scene which escapes the efficient student, as that the student may supply the actor's lack of insight.

It is, indeed, comparatively easy for a student of literature to support the proposition that Shakespeare can be, and ought to be, represented on the stage. But it is difficult to define the ways and means of securing practical observance of the precept. For some years there has been a widening divergence of view respecting methods of Shakespearean production. Those who defend in theory the adaptability of Shakespeare to the stage are at variance with the leading managers, who alone possess the power of conferring on the Shakespearean drama theatrical interpretation. In the most influential circles of the theatrical profession it has become a commonplace to assert that Shakespearean drama cannot be successfully produced, cannot be rendered tolerable to any substantial section of the playgoing public, without a plethora of scenic spectacle and gorgeous costume, much of which the student regards as superfluous and inappropriate. An accepted tradition of the modern stage ordains that every revival of a Shakespearean play at a leading theatre shall base some part of its claim to public favour on its spectacular magnificence.

The dramatic interest of Shakespearean drama is, in fact, deemed by the manager to be inadequate to satisfy the necessary commercial purposes of the theatre. The average purveyor of public entertainment reckons Shakespeare's plays among tasteless and colourless commodities, which only become marketable when they are reinforced by the independent arts of music and painting. Shakespeare's words must be spoken to musical accompaniments specially prepared for the occasion. Pictorial tableaux, even though they suggest topics without relevance to the development of the plot, have at times to be interpolated in order to keep the attention of the audience sufficiently alive.

One deduction to be drawn from this position of affairs is irrefutable. Spectacular embellishments are so costly that, according to the system now in vogue, the performance of a play of Shakespeare involves heavy financial risks. It is equally plain that, unless the views of theatrical managers undergo revolution, these risks are likely to become greater rather than smaller. The natural result is that in London, the city which sets the example to most English-speaking communities, Shakespearean revivals are comparatively rare; they take place at uncertain intervals, and only those plays are viewed with favour by the London manager which lend themselves in his opinion to more or less ostentatious spectacle, and to the interpolation of music and dancing.

It is ungrateful to criticise adversely any work the production of which entails the expenditure of much thought and money. More especially is it distasteful when the immediate outcome is, as in the case of many Shakespearean revivals at the great West-end theatres of London, the giving of pleasure to large sections of the community. That is in itself a worthy object. But it is open to doubt whether, from the sensible literary point of view, the managerial activity be well conceived or to the public advantage. It is hard to ignore a fundamental flaw in the manager's central position. The pleasure which recent Shakespearean revivals offer the spectator reaches him mainly through the eye. That is the manager's avowed intention. Yet no one would seriously deny that the Shakespearean drama appeals, both primarily and ultimately, to the head and to the heart. Whoever seeks, therefore, by the production of Shakespearean drama chiefly to please the spectator's eye shows scant respect both for the dramatist and for the spectator. However unwittingly, he tends to misrepresent the one, and to mislead the other, in a particular of first-rate importance. Indeed, excess in scenic display does worse than restrict opportunities of witnessing Shakespeare's plays on the stage in London and other large cities of England and America. It is to be feared that such excess either weakens or distorts the just and proper influence of Shakespeare's work. If these imputations can be sustained, then it follows that the increased and increasing expense which is involved in the production of Shakespeare's plays ought on grounds of public policy to be diminished.


Every stage representation of a play requires sufficient scenery and costume to produce in the audience that illusion of environment which the text invites. Without so much scenery or costume the words fail to get home to the audience. In comedies dealing with concrete conditions of modern society, the stage presentation necessarily relies to a very large extent for its success on the realism of the scenic appliances. In plays which, dealing with the universal and less familiar conditions of life, appeal to the highest faculties of thought and imagination, the pursuit of realism in the scenery tends to destroy the full significance of the illusion which it ought to enforce. In the case of plays straightforwardly treating of contemporary affairs, the environment which it is sought to reproduce is familiar and easy of imitation. In the case of drama, which involves larger spheres of fancy and feeling, the environment is unfamiliar and admits of no realistic imitation. The wall-paper and furniture of Mrs So-and-so's drawing-room in Belgravia or Derbyshire can be transferred bodily to the stage. Prospero's deserted island does not admit of the like translation.

Effective suggestion of the scene of The Tempest is all that can be reasonably attempted or desired. Plays which are wrought of purest imaginative texture call solely for a scenic setting which should convey effective suggestion. The machinery to be employed for the purpose of effective suggestion should be simple and unobtrusive. If it be complex and obtrusive, it defeats "the purpose of playing" by exaggerating for the spectator the inevitable interval between the visionary and indeterminate limits of the scene which the poet imagines, and the cramped and narrow bounds, which the stage renders practicable. That perilous interval can only be effectually bridged by scenic art, which is applied with an apt judgment and a light hand. Anything that aims at doing more than satisfy the condition essential to the effective suggestion of the scenic environment of Shakespearean drama is, from the literary and logical points of view, "wasteful and ridiculous excess."[2]

[Footnote 2: A minor practical objection, from the dramatic point of view, to realistic scenery is the long pause its setting on the stage often renders inevitable between the scenes. Intervals of the kind, which always tends to blunt the dramatic point of the play, especially in the case of tragic masterpieces, should obviously be as brief as possible.]

But it is not only a simplification of scenic appliances that is needed. Other external incidents of production require revision. Spectacular methods of production entail the employment of armies of silent supernumeraries to whom are allotted functions wholly ornamental and mostly impertinent. Here, too, reduction is desirable in the interest of the true significance of drama. No valid reason can be adduced why persons should appear on the stage who are not precisely indicated by the text of the play or by the authentic stage directions. When Caesar is buried, it is essential to produce in the audience the illusion that a crowd of Roman citizens is taking part in the ceremony. But quality comes here before quantity. The fewer the number of supernumeraries by whom the needful illusion is effected, the greater the merit of the performance, the more convincing the testimony borne to the skill of the stage-manager. Again, no processions of psalm-singing priests and monks contribute to the essential illusion in the historical plays. Nor does the text of The Merchant of Venice demand any assembly of Venetian townsfolk, however picturesquely attired, sporting or chaffering with one another on the Rialto, when Shylock enters to ponder Antonio's request for a loan. An interpolated tableau is indefensible, and "though it make the unskilful laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve." In Antony and Cleopatra the pageant of Cleopatra's voyage up the river Cydnus to meet her lover Antony should have no existence outside the gorgeous description given of it by Enobarbus.


What would be the practical effects of a stern resolve on the part of theatrical managers to simplify the scenic appliances and to reduce the supernumerary staff when they are producing Shakespearean drama? The replies will be in various keys. One result of simplification is obvious. There would be so much more money in the manager's pocket after he had paid the expenses of production. If his outlay were smaller, the sum that he expended in the production of one play of Shakespeare on the current over-elaborate scale would cover the production of two or three pieces mounted with simplicity and with a strict adherence to the requirements of the text. In such an event, the manager would be satisfied with a shorter run for each play.

On the other hand, supporters of the existing system allege that no public, which is worth the counting, would interest itself in Shakespeare's plays, if they were robbed of scenic upholstery and spectacular display. This estimate rests on insecure foundations. That section of the London public which is genuinely interested in Shakespearean drama for its own sake, is prone to distrust the modern theatrical manager, and as things are, for the most part avoids the theatre altogether. The student stays at home to read Shakespeare at his fireside.

It may be admitted that the public to which Shakespeare in his purity makes appeal is not very large. It is clearly not large enough to command continuous runs of plays for months, or even weeks. But therein lies no cause for depression. Long runs of a single play of Shakespeare bring more evil than good in their train. They develop in even the most efficient acting a soulless mechanism. The literary beauty of the text is obliterated by repetition from the actors' minds. Unostentatious mounting of the Shakespearean plays, however efficient be the acting with which it is associated, may always fail to "please the million"; it may be "caviare to the general." Nevertheless, the sagacious manager, who, by virtue of comparatively inexpensive settings and in alliance with a well-chosen company of efficient actors and actresses, is able at short intervals to produce a succession of Shakespeare's plays, may reasonably expect to attract a small but steady and sufficient support from the intelligent section of London playgoers, and from the home-reading students of Shakespeare, who are not at present playgoers at all.


The practical manager, who naturally seeks pecuniary profit from his ventures, insists that these suggestions are counsels of perfection and these anticipations wild and fantastic dreams. His last word is that by spectacular method Shakespeare can alone be made to "pay" in the theatre. But are we here on perfectly secure ground? Has the commercial success attending the spectacular production of Shakespeare been invariably so conspicuous as to put summarily out of court, on the purely commercial ground, the method of simplicity? The pecuniary results are public knowledge in the case of the two most strenuous and prolonged endeavours to give Shakespeare the splendours of spectacle which have yet been completed on the London stage. What is the message of these two efforts in mere pecuniary terms?

Charles Kean may be regarded as the founder of the modern spectacular system, though it had some precedents, and has been developed since his day. Charles Kean, between 1851 and 1859, persistently endeavoured by prodigal and brilliant display to make the production of Shakespeare an enterprise of profit at the Princess's Theatre, London. The scheme proved pecuniarily disastrous.

Subsequently Kean's mantle was assumed by the late Sir Henry Irving, the greatest of recent actors and stage-managers, who in many regards conferred incalculable benefits on the theatre-going public and on the theatrical profession. Throughout the last quarter of the last century, Irving gave the spectacular and scenic system in the production of Shakespeare every advantage that it could derive from munificent expenditure and the co-operation of highly endowed artists. He could justly claim a finer artistic sentiment and a higher histrionic capacity than Charles Kean possessed. Yet Irving announced, not long before his death, that he lost on his Shakespearean productions a hundred thousand pounds. Sir Henry added:

The enormous cost of a Shakespearean production on the liberal and elaborate scale which the public is now accustomed to expect makes it almost impossible for any manager—I don't care who it is—to pursue a continuous policy of Shakespeare for many years with any hope of profit in the long run.

In face of this authoritative pronouncement, it must be conceded that the spectacular system has been given, within recent memory, every chance of succeeding, and, as far as recorded testimony is available, has been, from the commercial point of view, a failure.

Meanwhile, during and since the period when Sir Henry Irving filled the supreme place among producers of Shakespeare on the stage, the simple method of Shakespearean production has been given no serious chance. The anticipation of its pecuniary failure has not been put in satisfactory conditions to any practical test. The last time that it was put to a sound practical test it did not fail. While Irving was a boy, Phelps at Sadler's Wells Theatre gave, in well-considered conditions, the simple method a trial. Phelps's playhouse was situated in the unfashionable neighbourhood of Islington. But the prophets of evil, who were no greater strangers to Phelps's generation than they are to our own, were themselves confuted by his experience.


On the 27th of May 1844 Phelps, a most intelligent actor and a serious student of Shakespeare, opened the long-disused Sadler's Wells Theatre in partnership with Mrs Warner, a capable actress, whose rendering of Imogen went near perfection. Their design was inspired by "the hope," they wrote in an unassuming address, "of eventually rendering Sadler's Wells what a theatre ought to be—a place for justly representing the works of our great dramatic poets." This hope they went far to realise. The first play that they produced was Macbeth.

Phelps continued to control Sadler's Wells Theatre for more than eighteen years. During that period he produced, together with many other English plays of classical repute, no fewer than thirty-one of the thirty-seven great dramas which came from Shakespeare's pen. In his first season, besides Macbeth he set forth Hamlet, King John, Henry VIII., The Merchant of Venice, Othello, and Richard III. To these he added in the course of his second season, Julius Caesar, King Lear, and The Winter's Tale. Henry IV., part I., Measure for Measure, Romeo and Juliet, and The Tempest followed in his third season; As You Like It, Cymbeline, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Twelfth Night, in his fourth. Each succeeding season saw further additions to the Shakespearean repertory, until only six Shakespearean dramas were left unrepresented, viz.—Richard II., the three parts of Henry VI., Troilus and Cressida, and Titus Andronicus. Of these, one alone, Richard II., is really actable.

The leading principles, to which Phelps strictly adhered throughout his career of management, call for most careful consideration. He gathered round him a company of actors and actresses, whom he zealously trained to interpret Shakespeare's language. He accustomed his colleagues to act harmoniously together, and to sacrifice to the welfare of the whole enterprise individual pretensions to prominence. No long continuous run of any one piece was permitted by the rules of the playhouse. The programme was constantly changed. The scenic appliances were simple, adequate, and inexpensive. The supernumerary staff was restricted to the smallest practicable number. The general expenses were consequently kept within narrow limits. For every thousand pounds that Charles Kean laid out at the Princess's Theatre on scenery and other expenses of production, Phelps in his most ornate revivals spent less than a fourth of that sum. For the pounds spent by managers on more recent revivals, Phelps would have spent only as many shillings. In the result, Phelps reaped from the profits of his a handsome unencumbered income. During the same period Charles Kean grew more and more deeply involved in oppressive debt, and at a later date Sir Henry Irving made over to the public a hundred thousand pounds above his receipts.


Why, then, should not Phelps's encouraging experiment be made again?[3]

[Footnote 3: It is just to notice, among endeavours of the late years of the past century, to which I confine my remarks here, the efforts to produce Shakespearean drama worthily which were made by Charles Alexander Calvert at the Prince's Theatre, Manchester, between 1864 and 1874. Calvert, who was a warm admirer of Phelps, attempted to blend Phelps's method with Charles Kean's, and bestowed great scenic elaboration on the production of at least eight plays of Shakespeare. Financially the speculation saw every vicissitude, and Calvert's experience may be quoted in support of the view that a return to Phelps's method is financially safer than a return to Charles Kean's. More recently the Elizabethan Stage Society endeavoured to produce, with a simplicity which erred on the side of severity, many plays of Shakespeare and other literary dramas. No scenery was employed, and the performers were dressed in Elizabethan costume. The Society's work was done privately, and did not invite any genuine test of publicity. The representation by the Society on November 11, 1899, in the Lecture Theatre at Burlington House, of Richard II., in which Mr Granville Barker played the King with great charm and judgment, showed the fascination that a competent rendering of Shakespeare's text exerts, even in the total absence of scenery, over a large audience of suitable temper.]

Before anyone may commit himself to an affirmative reply, it is needful for him to realise fully the precise demands which a system like that of Phelps makes, when rightly interpreted, on the character, ability, and energy of the actors and actresses. If scenery in Shakespearean productions be relegated to its proper place in the background of the stage, it is necessary that the acting, from top to bottom of the cast, shall be more efficient and better harmonised than that which is commonly associated with spectacular representations. The simple method of producing Shakespeare focusses the interest of the audience on the actor and actress; it gives them a dignity and importance which are unknown to the complex method. Under the latter system, the attention of the spectator is largely absorbed by the triumphs of the scene-painter and machinist, of the costumier and the musicians. The actor and actress often elude notice altogether.

Macready, whose theatrical career was anterior to the modern spectacular period of Shakespearean representation, has left on record a deliberate opinion of Charles Kean's elaborate methods at the Princess's Theatre in their relation to drama and the histrionic art. Macready's verdict has an universal application. "The production of the Shakespearean plays at the Princess's Theatre," the great actor wrote to Lady Pollock on the 1st of May 1859, rendered the spoken text "more like a running commentary on the spectacles exhibited than the scenic arrangements an illustration of the text." No criticism could define more convincingly the humiliation to which the author's words are exposed by spectacle, or, what is more pertinent to the immediate argument, the evil which is worked by spectacle on the actor.

Acting can be, and commonly tends to be, the most mechanical of physical exercises. The actor is often a mere automaton who repeats night after night the same unimpressive trick of voice, eye, and gesture. His defects of understanding may be comparatively unobtrusive in a spectacular display, where he is liable to escape censure by escaping observation, or at best to be regarded as a showman. Furthermore, the long runs which scenic excess brings in its train accentuate the mechanical actor's imperfections and diminish his opportunities of remedying them. On the other hand, acting can rise in opposite conditions into the noblest of the arts. The great actor relies for genuine success on no mere gesticulatory mechanism. Imaginative insight, passion, the gift of oratory, grace and dignity of movement and bearing, perfect command of the voice in the whole gamut of its inflections are the constituent qualities of true histrionic capacity.

In no drama are these qualities more necessary, or are ampler opportunities offered for their use, than in the plays of Shakespeare. Not only in the leading roles of his masterpieces, but in the subordinate parts throughout the range of his work, the highest abilities of the actor or actress can find some scope for employment. It is therefore indispensable that the standard of Shakespearean acting should always be maintained at the highest level, if Shakespearean drama is to be fitly rendered in the theatre. The worst of the evils, which are inherent in scenic excess, with its accompaniment of long runs, is its tendency to sanction the maintenance of the level of acting at something below the highest. Phelps was keenly alive to this peril, and his best energies were devoted to training his actors and actresses for all the roles in the cast, great and small. Actors and actresses of the first rank on occasion filled minor parts, in order to heighten the efficiency of the presentation. Actors and actresses who have the dignity of their profession at heart might be expected to welcome the revival of a system which alone guarantees their talent and the work of the dramatist due recognition, even if it leave histrionic incompetence no hope of escape from the scorn that befits it. It is on the aspiration and sentiment of the acting profession that must largely depend the final answer to the question whether Phelps's experiment can be made again with likelihood of success.


Foreign experience tells in favour of the contention that, if Shakespeare's plays are to be honoured on the modern stage as they deserve, they must be freed of the existing incubus of scenic machinery. French acting has always won and deserved admiration. There is no doubt that one cause of its permanently high repute is the absolute divorce in the French theatre of drama from spectacle.

Moliere stands to French literature in much the same relation as Shakespeare stands to English literature. Moliere's plays are constantly acted in French theatres with a scenic austerity which is unknown to the humblest of our theatres. A French audience would regard it as sacrilege to convert a comedy of Moliere into a spectacle. The French people are commonly credited with a love of ornament and display to which the English people are assumed to be strangers, but their treatment of Moliere is convincing proof that their artistic sense is ultimately truer than our own.

The mode of producing Shakespeare on the stage in Germany supplies an argument to the same effect. In Berlin and Vienna, and in all the chief towns of German-speaking Europe, Shakespeare's plays are produced constantly and in all their variety, for the most part, in conditions which are directly antithetical to those prevailing in the West-end theatres of London. Twenty-eight of Shakespeare's thirty-seven plays figure in the repertoires of the leading companies of German-speaking actors.

The currently accepted method of presentation can be judged from the following personal experience. A few years ago I was in the Burg-Theater in Vienna on a Sunday night—the night on which the great working population of Vienna chiefly take their recreation, as in this country it is chiefly taken by the great working population on Saturday night. The Burg-Theater in Vienna is one of the largest theatres in the world. It is of similar dimensions to Drury Lane Theatre or Covent Garden Opera-house. On the occasion of my visit the play produced was Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. The house was crowded in every part. The scenic arrangements were simple and unobtrusive, but were well calculated to suggest the Oriental atmosphere of the plot. There was no music before the performance, or during the intervals between the acts, or as an accompaniment to great speeches in the progress of the play. There was no making love, nor any dying to slow music, although the stage directions were followed scrupulously; the song "Come, thou Monarch of the Vine," was sung to music in the drinking scene on board Pompey's galley, and there were the appointed flourishes of trumpets and drums. The acting was competent, though not of the highest calibre, but a satisfactory level was evenly maintained throughout the cast. There were no conspicuous deflections from the adequate standard. The character of whom I have the most distinct recollection was Enobarbus, the level-headed and straight-hitting critic of the action—a comparatively subordinate part, which was filled by one of the most distinguished actors of the Viennese stage. He fitted his part with telling accuracy.

The whole piece was listened to with breathless interest. It was acted practically without curtailment, and, although the performance lasted nearly five hours, no sign of impatience manifested itself at any point. This was no exceptional experience at the Burg-Theater. Plays of Shakespeare are acted there repeatedly—on an average twice a week—and, I am credibly informed, with identical results to those of which I was an eye-witness.


It cannot be flattering to our self-esteem that the Austrian people should show a greater and a wiser appreciation of the theatrical capacities of Shakespeare's masterpieces than we who are Shakespeare's countrymen and the most direct and rightful heirs of his glorious achievements. How is the disturbing fact to be accounted for? Is it possible that it is attributable to some decay in us of the imagination—to a growing slowness on our part to appreciate works of imagination? When one reflects on the simple mechanical contrivances which satisfied the theatrical audiences, not only of Shakespeare's own day, but of the eighteenth century, during which Shakespeare was repeatedly performed; when one compares the simplicity of scenic mechanism in the past with its complexity in our own time, one can hardly resist the conclusion that the imagination of the theatre-going public is no longer what it was of old. The play alone was then "the thing." Now "the thing," it seems, is something outside the play—namely, the painted scene or the costume, the music or the dance.

Garrick played Macbeth in an ordinary Court suit of his own era. The habiliments proper to Celtic monarchs of the eleventh century were left to be supplied by the imagination of the spectators or not at all. No realistic "effects" helped the play forward in Garrick's time, yet the attention of his audience, the critics tell us, was never known to stray when he produced a great play by Shakespeare. In Shakespeare's day boys or men took the part of women, and how characters like Lady Macbeth and Desdemona were adequately rendered by youths beggars belief. But renderings in such conditions proved popular and satisfactory. Such a fact seems convincing testimony, not to the ability of Elizabethan or Jacobean boys—the nature of boys is a pretty permanent factor in human society—but to the superior imaginative faculty of adult Elizabethan or Jacobean playgoers, in whom, as in Garrick's time, the needful dramatic illusion was far more easily evoked than it is nowadays.

This is no exhilarating conclusion. But less exhilarating is the endeavour that is sometimes made by advocates of the system of spectacle to prove that Shakespeare himself would have appreciated the modern developments of the scenic art—nay, more, that he himself has justified them. This line of argument serves to confirm the suggested defect of imagination in the present generation. The well-known chorus before the first act of Henry V. is the evidence which is relied upon to show that Shakespeare wished his plays to be, in journalistic dialect, "magnificently staged," and that he deplored the inability of his uncouth age to realise that wish. The lines are familiar; but it is necessary to quote them at length, in fairness to those who judge them to be a defence of the spectacular principle in the presentation of Shakespearean drama. They run:—

O for a muse of fire, that would ascend The brightest heaven of invention, A kingdom for a stage, princes to act, And monarchs to behold the swelling scene! Then should the warlike Harry, like himself, Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels, Leash'd in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire Crouch for employment. But pardon, gentles all, The flat unraised spirits that have dar'd On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth So great an object: can this cockpit hold The vasty fields of France? or may we cram Within this wooden O the very casques That did affright the air at Agincourt? O, pardon! since a crooked figure may Attest in little place a million; And let us, ciphers to this great accompt, On your imaginary forces work. Suppose within the girdle of these walls Are now confined two mighty monarchies, Whose high upreared and abutting fronts, The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder; Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts; Into a thousand parts divide one man, And make imaginary puissance: Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them Printing their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth. For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings, Carry them here and there, jumping o'er times, Turning the accomplishment of many years Into an hour glass.

There is, in my opinion, no strict relevance in these lines to the enquiry whether Shakespeare's work should be treated on the stage as drama or spectacle. Nay, I go further, and assert that, as far as the speech touches the question at issue at all, it tells against the pretensions of spectacle.

Shortly stated, Shakespeare's splendid prelude to his play of Henry V., is a spirited appeal to his audience not to waste regrets on defects of stage machinery, but to bring to the observation of his piece their highest powers of imagination, whereby alone can full justice be done to a majestic theme. The central topic of the choric speech is the essential limitations of all scenic appliances. The dramatist reminds us that the literal presentation of life itself, in all its movement and action, lies outside the range of the stage, especially the movement and action of life in its most glorious manifestations. Obvious conditions of space do not allow "two mighty monarchies" literally to be confined within the walls of a theatre. Obvious conditions of time cannot turn "the accomplishments of many years into an hour glass." Shakespeare is airing no private grievance. He is not complaining that his plays were in his own day inadequately upholstered in the theatre, or that the "scaffold" on which they were produced was "unworthy" of them. The words have no concern with the contention that modern upholstery and spectacular machinery render Shakespeare's play a justice which was denied them in his lifetime. As reasonably one might affirm that the modern theatre has now conquered the ordinary conditions of time and space; that a modern playhouse can, if the manager so will it, actually hold within its walls the "vasty fields of France," or confine "two mighty monarchies."

A wider and quite impersonal trend of thought is offered for consideration by Shakespeare's majestic eloquence. The dramatist bids us bear in mind that his lines do no more than suggest the things he would have the audience see and understand; the actors aid the suggestion according to their ability. But the crucial point of the utterance is the warning that the illusion of the drama can only be rendered complete in the theatre by the working of the "imaginary forces" of the spectators. It is needful for them to "make imaginary puissance," if the play is to triumph. It is their "thoughts" that "must deck" the kings of the stage, if the dramatist's meaning is to get home. The poet modestly underestimated the supreme force of his own imaginative genius when giving these admonitions to his hearers. But they are warnings of universal application, and can never be safely ignored.

Such an exordium as the chorus before Henry V. would indeed be pertinent to every stage performance of great drama in any age or country. It matters not whether the spectacular machinery be of royal magnificence or of poverty-stricken squalor. Let us make the extravagant assumption that all the artistic genius in the world and all the treasure in the Bank of England were placed at the command of a theatrical manager in order to enable him to produce a great play on his stage supremely well from his own scenic point of view. Even then it would be neither superfluous nor impertinent for the manager to adjure the audience to piece out the "imperfections" of the scenery with their "thoughts" or imagination. The spectator's "imaginary puissance" is, practically in every circumstance, the key-stone of the dramatic illusion.

The only conditions in which Shakespeare's adjuration would be superfluous or impertinent would accompany the presentment in the theatre of some circumscribed incident of life which is capable of so literal a rendering as to leave no room for any make-believe or illusion at all. The unintellectual playgoer, to whom Shakespeare will never really prove attractive in any guise, has little or no imagination to exercise, and he only tolerates a performance in the theatre when little or no demand is made on the exercise of the imaginative faculty. "The groundlings," said Shakespeare for all time, "are capable of [appreciating] nothing but inexplicable dumb shows and noise." They would be hugely delighted nowadays with a scene in which two real motor cars, with genuine chauffeurs and passengers, raced uproariously across the stage. That is realism in its nakedness. That is realism reduced to its first principles. Realistic "effects," however speciously beautiful they may be, invariably tend to realism of that primal type, which satisfies the predilections of the groundling, and reduces drama to the level of the cinematograph.


The deliberate pursuit of scenic realism is antagonistic to the ultimate law of dramatic art. In the case of great plays, the dramatic representation is most successful from the genuinely artistic point of view—which is the only point of view worthy of discussion—when the just dramatic illusion is produced by simple and unpretending scenic appliances, in which the inevitable "imperfections" are frankly left to be supplied by the "thoughts" or imagination of the spectators.

Lovers of Shakespeare should lose no opportunity of urging the cause of simplicity in the production of the plays of Shakespeare. Practical common-sense, practical considerations of a pecuniary kind, teach us that it is only by the adoption of simple methods of production that we can hope to have Shakespeare represented in our theatres constantly and in all his variety. Until Shakespeare is represented thus, the spiritual and intellectual enlightenment, which his achievement offers English-speaking people, will remain wholly inaccessible to the majority who do not read him, and will be only in part at the command of the few who do. Nay, more: until Shakespeare is represented on the stage constantly and in his variety, English-speaking men and women are liable to the imputation, not merely of failing in the homage due to the greatest of their countrymen, but of falling short of their neighbours in Germany and Austria in the capacity of appreciating supremely great imaginative literature.



[Footnote 4: This paper, which was first printed in "An English Miscellany, presented to Dr Furnivall in honour of his seventy-fifth birthday" (Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1901), was written as a lecture for delivery on Tuesday afternoon, March 20, 1900, at Queen's College (for women) in Harley Street, London, in aid of the Fund for securing a picture commemorating Queen Victoria's visit to the College in 1898.]


In a freak of fancy, Robert Louis Stevenson sent to a congenial spirit the imaginary intelligence that a well-known firm of London publishers had, after their wont, "declined with thanks" six undiscovered tragedies, one romantic comedy, a fragment of a journal extending over six years, and an unfinished autobiography reaching up to the first performance of King John by "that venerable but still respected writer, William Shakespeare." Stevenson was writing in a frivolous mood; but such words stir the imagination. The ordinary person, if he had to choose among the enumerated items of Shakespeare's newly-discovered manuscripts, would cheerfully go without the six new tragedies and the one romantic comedy if he had at his disposal, by way of consolation, the journal extending over six years and the autobiography reaching up to the first performance of King John. We should deem ourselves fortunate if we had the journal alone. It would hardly matter which six years of Shakespeare's life the journal covered. As a boy, as a young actor, as an industrious reviser of other men's plays, as the humorous creator of Falstaff, Benedick, and Mercutio, as the profound "natural" philosopher of the great tragedies, he could never have been quite an ordinary diarist. Great men have been known to keep diaries in which the level of interest does not rise above a visit to the barber or the dentist. The common routine of life interested Shakespeare, but something beyond it must have found place in his journal. Reference to his glorious achievement must have gained entry there.

Some notice, we may be sure, figured in Shakespeare's diary of the first performances of his great plays on the stage. However eminent a man is through native genius or from place of power, he can never, whatever his casual professions to the contrary, be indifferent to the reception accorded by his fellow-men to the work of his hand and head. I picture Shakespeare as the soul of modesty and gentleness in the social relations of life, avoiding unbecoming self-advertisement, and rating at its just value empty flattery, the mere adulation of the lips. Gushing laudation is as little to the taste of wise men as treacle. They cannot escape condiments of the kind, but the smaller and less frequent the doses the more they are content. Shakespeare no doubt had the great man's self-confidence which renders him to a large extent independent of the opinion of his fellows. At the same time, the knowledge that he had succeeded in stirring the reader or hearer of his plays, the knowledge that his words had gripped their hearts and intellects, cannot have been ungrateful to him. To desire recognition for his work is for the artist an inevitable and a laudable ambition. A working dramatist by the circumstance of his calling appeals as soon as the play is written to the playgoer for a sympathetic appreciation. Nature impelled Shakespeare to note on the pages of his journal his impression of the sentiment with which the fruits of his pen were welcomed in the playhouse.

But Shakespeare's journal does not exist, and we can only speculate as to its contents.


We would give much to know how Shakespeare recorded in his diary the first performance of Hamlet, the most fascinating of all his works. He himself, we are credibly told, played the Ghost. We would give much for a record of the feelings which lay on the first production of the play beneath the breast of the silent apparition in the first scene which twice crossed the stage and affrighted Marcellus, Horatio, and the guards on the platform before the castle of Elsinore. No piece of literature that ever came from human pen or brain is more closely packed with fruit of the imaginative study of human life than is Shakespeare's tragedy of Hamlet; and while the author acted the part of the Ghost in the play's initial representation in the theatre, he was watching the revelation of his pregnant message for the first time to the external world. When the author in his weird role of Hamlet's murdered father opened his lips for the first time, we might almost imagine that in the words "pity me not, but lend thy serious hearing to what I shall unfold," he was reflecting the author's personal interest in the proceedings of that memorable afternoon.[5] We can imagine Shakespeare, as he saw the audience responding to his grave appeal, giving with a growing confidence, the subsequent words, which he repeated while he moved to the centre of the platform-stage, and turned to face the whole house:—

I find thee apt; And duller shouldst thou be than the fat weed That rots itself in ease on Lethe wharf, Wouldst thou not stir in this.

[Footnote 5: Performances of plays in Shakespeare's time always took place in the afternoon.]

As the Ghost vanished and the air rang mysteriously with his piercing words "Remember me," we would like to imagine the whole intelligence of Elizabethan England responding to that cry as it sprang on its first utterance in the theatre from the great dramatist's own lips. Since that memorable day, at any rate, the whole intelligence of the world has responded to that cry with all Hamlet's ecstasy, and with but a single modification of the phraseology:—

Remember thee! Ay, thou great soul, while memory holds a seat In this distracted globe.


There is a certain justification, in fact, for the fancy that the plaudites were loud and long, when Shakespeare created the role of the "poor ghost" in the first production of his play of Hamlet in 1602. There is no doubt at all that Shakespeare conspicuously caught the ear of the Elizabethan playgoer at a very early date in his career, and that he held it firmly for life. "These plays," wrote two of his professional associates of the reception of the whole series in the playhouse in his lifetime—"These plays have had their trial already, and stood out all appeals." Matthew Arnold, apparently quite unconsciously, echoed the precise phrase when seeking to express poetically the universality of Shakespeare's reputation in our own day.

Others abide our judgment, thou art free,

is the first line of Arnold's well-known sonnet, which attests the rank allotted to Shakespeare in the literary hierarchy by the professional critic, nearly two and a half centuries after the dramatist's death. There was no narrower qualification in the apostrophe of Shakespeare by Ben Jonson, a very critical contemporary:—

Soul of the age, The applause, delight, and wonder of our stage.

This play of Hamlet, this play of his "which most kindled English hearts," received a specially enthusiastic welcome from Elizabethan playgoers. It was acted within its first year of production repeatedly ("divers times"), not merely in London "and elsewhere," but also—an unusual distinction—at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. It was reprinted four times within eight years of its birth.

Thus the charge sometimes brought against the Elizabethan playgoer of failing to recognise Shakespeare's sovereign genius should be reckoned among popular errors. It was not merely the recognition of the critical and highly educated that Shakespeare received in person. It was by the voice of the half-educated populace, whose heart and intellect were for once in the right, that he was acclaimed the greatest interpreter of human nature that literature had known, and, as subsequent experience has proved, was likely to know. There is evidence that throughout his lifetime and for a generation afterwards his plays drew crowds to pit, boxes, and gallery alike. It is true that he was one of a number of popular dramatists, many of whom had rare gifts, and all of whom glowed with a spark of the genuine literary fire. But Shakespeare was the sun in the firmament: when his light shone, the fires of all contemporaries paled in the contemporary playgoer's eye. There is forcible and humorous portrayal of human frailty and eccentricity in plays of Shakespeare's contemporary, Ben Jonson. Ben Jonson was a classical scholar, which Shakespeare was not. Jonson was as well versed in Roman history as a college tutor. But when Shakespeare and Ben Jonson both tried their hands at dramatising episodes in Roman history, the Elizabethan public of all degrees of intelligence welcomed Shakespeare's efforts with an enthusiasm which they rigidly withheld from Ben Jonson's. This is how an ordinary playgoer contrasted the reception of Jonson's Roman play of Catiline's Conspiracy with that of Shakespeare's Roman play of Julius Caesar:—

So have I seen when Caesar would appear, And on the stage at half-sword parley were Brutus and Cassius—oh! how the audience Were ravished, with what wonder they went thence; When some new day they would not brook a line Of tedious though well-laboured Catiline.

Shakespeare was the popular favourite. It is rare that the artist who is a hero with the multitude is also a hero with the cultivated few. But Shakespeare's universality of appeal was such as to include among his worshippers from the first the trained and the untrained playgoer of his time.


Very early in his career did Shakespeare attract the notice of the cultivated section of Elizabeth's Court, and hardly sufficient notice has been taken by students of the poet's biography of the earliest recognition accorded him by the great queen, herself an inveterate lover of the drama, and an embodiment of the taste of the people in literature. The story is worth retelling. In the middle of December 1594, Queen Elizabeth removed from Whitehall to Greenwich to spend Christmas at that palace of Greenwich in which she was born sixty-one years earlier. And she made the celebration of Christmas of 1594 more memorable than any other in the annals of her reign or in the literary history of the country by summoning Shakespeare to Court. It was less than eight years since the poet had first set foot in the metropolis. His career was little more than opened. But by 1594 Shakespeare had given his countrymen unmistakable indications of the stuff of which he was made. His progress had been more sure than rapid. A young man of two-and-twenty, burdened with a wife and three children, he had left his home in the little country town of Stratford-on-Avon in 1586 to seek his fortune in London. Without friends, without money, he had, like any other stage-struck youth, set his heart on becoming an actor in the metropolis. Fortune favoured him. He sought and won the humble office of call-boy in a London playhouse; but no sooner had his foot touched the lowest rung of the theatrical ladder than his genius taught him that the topmost rung was within his reach. He tried his hand on the revision of an old play, and the manager was not slow to recognise an unmatched gift for dramatic writing.

It was not probably till 1591, when Shakespeare was twenty-seven, that his earliest original play, Love's Labour's Lost, was performed. It showed the hand of a beginner; it abounded in trivial witticisms. But above all, there shone out clearly and unmistakably the dramatic and poetic fire, the humorous outlook on life, the insight into human feeling, which were to inspire Titanic achievements in the future.

Soon after, Shakespeare scaled the tragic heights of Romeo and Juliet, and he was hailed as the prophet of a new world of art. Fashionable London society then, as now, befriended the theatre. Cultivated noblemen offered their patronage to promising writers for the stage, and Shakespeare soon gained the ear of the young Earl of Southampton, one of the most accomplished and handsome of the queen's noble courtiers, who was said to spend nearly all his time in going to the playhouse every day. It was at Southampton's suggestion, that, in the week preceding the Christmas of 1594, the Lord Chamberlain sent word to The Theatre in Shoreditch, where Shakespeare was at work as playwright and actor, that the poet was expected at Court on two days following Christmas, in order to give his sovereign on the two evenings a taste of his quality. He was to act before her in his own plays.

It cannot have been Shakespeare's promise as an actor that led to the royal summons. His histrionic fame had not progressed at the same rate as his literary repute. He was never to win the laurels of a great actor. His most conspicuous triumph on the stage was achieved in middle life as the Ghost in his own Hamlet, and he ordinarily confined his efforts to old men of secondary rank. Ample compensation was provided by his companions for his personal deficiencies as an actor on his first visit to Court; he was to come supported by actors of the highest eminence in their generation. Directions were given that the greatest of the tragic actors of the day, Richard Burbage, and the greatest of the comic actors, William Kemp, were to bear the young actor-dramatist company. With neither of these was Shakespeare's histrionic position then or at any time comparable. For years they were leaders of the acting profession.

Shakespeare's relations with Burbage and Kemp were close, both privately and professionally. Almost all Shakespeare's great tragic characters were created on the stage by Burbage, who had lately roused London to enthusiasm by his stirring presentation of Shakespeare's Richard III. for the first time. As long as Kemp lived, he conferred a like service on many of Shakespeare's comic characters; and he had recently proved his worth as a Shakespearean comedian by his original rendering of the part of Peter, the Nurse's graceless attendant, in Romeo and Juliet. Thus stoutly backed, Shakespeare appeared for the first time in the royal presence-chamber of Greenwich Palace on the evening of St Stephen's Day (the Boxing Day of subsequent generations) in 1594.

Extant documentary evidence attests that Shakespeare and his two associates performed one "comedy or interlude" on that night of Boxing Day in 1594, and gave another "comedy or interlude" on the next night but one; that the Lord Chamberlain paid the three men for their services the sum of L13, 6s. 8d., and that the queen added to the honorarium, as a personal proof of her satisfaction, the further sum of L6, 13s. 4d. These were substantial sums in those days, when the purchasing power of money was eight times as much as it is to-day, and the three actors' reward would now be equivalent to L160.

Unhappily the record does not go beyond the payment of the money. What words of commendation or encouragement Shakespeare received from his royal auditor are not handed down, nor do we know for certain what plays were performed on the great occasion. All the scenes came from Shakespeare's repertory, and it is reasonable to infer that they were drawn from Love's Labour's Lost, which was always popular in later years at Elizabeth's Court, and from The Comedy of Errors, where the farcical confusions and horse-play were after the queen's own heart and robust taste. But nothing can be stated with absolute certainty except that on December 29 Shakespeare travelled up the river from Greenwich to London with a heavier purse and a lighter heart than on his setting out. That the visit had in all ways been crowned with success there is ample indirect evidence. He and his work had fascinated his sovereign, and many a time during her remaining nine years of life was she to seek delight again in the renderings of plays by himself and his fellow-actors at her palaces on the banks of the Thames. When Shakespeare was penning his new play of A Midsummer Night's Dream next year, he could not forbear to make a passing obeisance of gallantry (in that vein for which the old spinster queen was always thirsting) to "a fair vestal throned by the West," who passed her life "in maiden meditation, fancy free."

Although literature and art can flourish without royal favour and royal patronage, still it is rare that royal patronage has any other effect than that of raising those who are its objects in the estimation of contemporaries. The interest that Shakespeare's work excited at Court was continuous throughout his life. When James I. ascended the throne, no author was more frequently honoured by "command" performances of his plays in the presence of the sovereign. And then, as now, the playgoer's appreciation was quickened by his knowledge that the play they were witnessing had been produced before the Court at Whitehall a few days earlier. Shakespeare's publishers were not above advertising facts like these, as may be seen by a survey of the title-pages of editions published in his lifetime. "The pleasant conceited comedy called Love's Labour's Lost" was advertised with the appended words, "as it was presented before her highness this last Christmas." "A most pleasant and excellent conceited comedy of Sir John Falstaff and the Merry Wives of Windsor" was stated to have been "divers times acted both before her majesty and elsewhere." The great play of Lear was advertised, "as it was played before the king's majesty at Whitehall on St Stephen's night in the Christmas holidays."


Although Shakespeare's illimitable command of expression, his universality of knowledge and insight, cannot easily be overlooked by any man or woman of ordinary human faculty, still, from some points of view, there is ground for surprise that the Elizabethan playgoer's enthusiasm for Shakespeare's work was so marked and unequivocal as we know that it was.

Let us consider for a moment the physical conditions of the theatre, the methods of stage representation, in Shakespeare's day. Theatres were in their infancy. The theatre was a new institution in social life for Shakespeare's public, and the whole system of the theatrical world came into being after Shakespeare came into the world. In estimating Shakespeare's genius one ought to bear in mind that he was a pioneer—almost the creator or first designer—of English drama, as well as the practised workman in unmatched perfection. There were before his day some efforts made at dramatic representation. The Middle Ages had their miracle plays and moralities and interludes. But of poetic, literary, romantic drama, England knew nothing until Shakespeare was of age. Marlowe, who in his early years inaugurated English tragedy, was Shakespeare's senior by only two months. It was not till 1576, when Shakespeare was twelve, that London for the first time possessed a theatre—a building definitely built for the purpose of presenting plays. Before that year, inn-yards or platforms, which were improvised in market-places or fields, served for the performance of interludes or moralities.

Nor was it precisely in London proper that this primal theatre, which is known in history simply as The Theatre, was set up. London in Shakespeare's day was a small town, barely a mile square, with a population little exceeding 60,000 persons. Within the circuit of the city-walls vacant spaces were sparse, and public opinion deprecated the erection of buildings upon them. Moreover, the puritan clergy and their pious flocks, who constituted an active section of the citizens, were inclined to resist the conversion of any existing building into such a Satanic trap for unwary souls as they believed a playhouse of necessity to be.

It was, accordingly, in the fields near London, not in London itself, that the first theatre was set up. Adjoining the city lay pleasant meadows, which were bright in spring-time with daisies and violets. Green lanes conducted the wayfarer to the rural retreat of Islington, and citizens went for change of air to the rustic seclusion of Mary-le-bone. A site for the first-born of London playhouses was chosen in the spacious fields of Finsbury and Shoreditch, which the Great Eastern Railway now occupies. The innovation of a theatre, even though it were placed outside the walls of the city, excited serious misgiving among the godly minority. But, after much controversy, the battle was finally won by the supporters of the play, and The Theatre was launched on a prosperous career. Two or three other theatres quickly sprang up in neighbouring parts of London's environment. When Shakespeare was reaching the zenith of his career, the centre of theatrical life was transferred from Shoreditch to the Southwark bank of the river Thames, at the south side of London Bridge, which lay outside the city's boundaries, but was easy of access to residents within them. It was at the Globe Theatre on Bankside, which was reached by bridge or by boat from the city-side of the river, that Shakespearean drama won its most glorious triumphs.


Despite the gloomy warnings of the preachers, the new London theatres had for the average Elizabethan all the fascination that a new toy has for a child. The average Elizabethan repudiated the jeremiads of the ultra-pious, and instantaneously became an enthusiastic playgoer. During the last year of the sixteenth century, an intelligent visitor to London, Thomas Platter, a native of Basle, whose journal has recently been discovered,[6] described with ingenuous sympathy the delight which the populace displayed in the new playhouses.

[Footnote 6: Professor Binz of Basle printed in September 1899 some extracts from Thomas Platter's unpublished diary of travels under the title: Londoner Theater und Schauspiele im Jahre 1599. Platter spent a month in London—September 18 to October 20, 1599. Platter's manuscript is in the Library of Basle University.]

Some attractions which the theatres offered had little concern with the drama. Their advantages included the privileges of eating and drinking while the play was in progress. After the play there was invariably a dance on the stage, often a brisk and boisterous Irish jig.

Other features of the entertainment seem to have been less exhilarating. The mass of the spectators filled the pit, where there was standing room only; there were no seats. The admission rarely cost more than a penny; but there was no roof. The rain beat at pleasure on the heads of the "penny" auditors; while pickpockets commonly plied their trade among them without much hindrance when the piece absorbed the attention of the "house." Seats or benches were only to be found in the two galleries, the larger portions of which were separated into "rooms" or boxes; prices there ranged from twopence to half-a-crown. If the playgoer had plenty of money at his command he could, according to the German visitor, hire not only a seat but a cushion to elevate his stature; "so that," says our author, "he might not only see the play, but"—what is also often more important for rich people—"be seen" by the audience to be occupying a specially distinguished place. Fashionable playgoers of the male sex might, if they opened their purses wide enough, occupy stools on the wide platform-stage. Such a practice proved embarrassing, not only to the performers, but to those who had to content themselves with the penny pit. Standing in front and by the sides of the projecting stage, they could often only catch glimpses of the actors through chinks in serried ranks of stools.

The histrionic and scenic conditions, in which Shakespeare's plays were originally produced, present a further series of disadvantages which, from our modern point of view, render the more amazing the unqualified enthusiasm of the Elizabethan playgoer.

There was no scenery, although there were crude endeavours to create scenic illusion by means of "properties" like rocks, tombs, caves, trees, tables, chairs, and pasteboard dishes of food. There was at the outset no music, save flourishes on trumpets at the opening of the play and between the acts. The scenes within each act were played continuously without pause. The bare boards of the platform-stage, which no proscenium nor curtain darkened, projected so far into the auditorium, that the actors spoke in the very centre of the house. Trap-doors were in use for the entrance of "ghosts" and other mysterious personages. At the back of the stage was a raised platform or balcony, from which often hung loose curtains; through them the actors passed to the forepart of the stage. The balcony was pressed into the service when the text of the play indicated that the speakers were not actually standing on the same level. From the raised platform Juliet addressed Romeo in the balcony scene, and the citizens of Angers in King John held colloquy with the English besiegers. This was, indeed, almost the furthest limit of the Elizabethan stage-manager's notion of scenic realism. The boards, which were bare save for the occasional presence of rough properties, were held to present adequate semblance, as the play demanded, of a king's throne-room, a chapel, a forest, a ship at sea, a mountainous pass, a market-place, a battle-field, or a churchyard.

The costumes had no pretensions to fit the period or place of the action. They were the ordinary dresses of various classes of the day, but were often of rich material, and in the height of the current fashion. False hair and beards, crowns and sceptres, mitres and croziers, armour, helmets, shields, vizors, and weapons of war, hoods, bands, and cassocks, were mainly relied on to indicate among the characters differences of rank or profession.

The foreign observer, Thomas Platter of Basle, was impressed by the splendour of the actors' costumes. He accounted for it in a manner that negatives any suggestion of dramatic propriety:—

"The players wear the most costly and beautiful dresses, for it is the custom in England, that when noblemen or knights die, they leave their finest clothes to their servants, who, since it would not be fitting for them to wear such splendid garments, sell them soon afterwards to the players for a small sum."

The most striking defect in the practice of the Elizabethan playhouse, according to accepted notions, lies in the allotment of the female roles. It was thought unseemly for women to act at all. Female parts were played by boys or men—a substitution lacking, from the modern point of view, in grace and seemliness. But the standard of propriety in such matters varies from age to age. Shakespeare alludes quite complacently to the appearance of boys and men in women's parts. He makes Rosalind say, laughingly and saucily, to the men of the audience in the epilogue to As You Like It: "If I were a woman I would kiss as many of you as had beards that pleased me." "If I were a woman," she says. The jest lies in the fact that the speaker was not a woman but a boy. Similarly, Cleopatra on her downfall in Antony and Cleopatra, (V. ii. 220), laments

the quick comedians Extemporally will stage us ... and I shall see Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness.

The experiment of entrusting a boy with the part of Ophelia was lately tried in London not unsuccessfully; but it is difficult to realise how a boy or young man could adequately interpret most of Shakespeare's female characters. It seems almost sacrilegious to conceive the part of Cleopatra, the most highly sensitised in its minutest details of all dramatic portrayals of female character,—it seems almost sacrilegious to submit Cleopatra's sublimity of passion to interpretation by an unfledged representative of the other sex. Yet such solecisms were imperative under the theatrical system of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Men taking women's parts seem to have worn masks, but that can hardly have improved matters. Flute, when he complains that it would hardly befit him to play a woman's part because he had a beard coming, is bidden by his resourceful manager, Quince, play Thisbe in a "mask." At times actors who had long lost the roses of youth masqueraded in women's roles. Thereby the ungainliness, which marked the distribution of the cast in Elizabethan and Jacobean playhouses, was often forced into stronger light.

It was not till the seventeenth century was well advanced that women were permitted to act in public theatres. Then the gracelessness of the masculine method was acknowledged and deplored. It was the character of Desdemona which was first undertaken by a woman, and the absurdity of the old practice was noticed in the prologue written for this revival of Othello, which was made memorable by the innovation. Some lines in the prologue describe the earlier system thus:—

For to speak truth, men act, that are between Forty or fifty, wenches of fifteen, With bone so large and nerve so uncompliant, When you call Desdemona, enter Giant.

Profound commiseration seems due to the Elizabethan playgoer, who was liable to have his faith in the tenderness and gentleness of Desdemona rudely shaken by the irruption on the stage of a brawny, broad-shouldered athlete, masquerading in her sweet name. Boys or men of all shapes and sizes squeaking or bawling out the tender and pathetic lines of Shakespeare's heroines, and no joys of scenery to distract the playgoer from the uncouth inconsistency! At first sight it would seem that the Elizabethan playgoer's lot was anything but happy.


The Elizabethan's hard fate strangely contrasts with the situation of the playgoer of the nineteenth or twentieth century. To the latter Shakespeare is presented in a dazzling plenitude of colour. Music punctuates not merely intervals between scenes and acts, but critical pauses in the speeches of the actors. Pictorial tableaux enthral the most callous onlooker. Very striking is the contrast offered by the methods of representation accepted with enthusiasm by the Elizabethan playgoer and those deemed essential by the fashionable modern manager. There seems a relish of barbarism in the ancient system when it is compared with the one now in vogue.

I fear the final conclusion to be drawn from the contrast is, contrary to expectation, more creditable to our ancestors than to ourselves. The needful dramatic illusion was obviously evoked in the playgoer of the past with an ease that is unknown to the present patrons of the stage. The absence of scenery, the substitution of boys and men for women, could only have passed muster with the Elizabethan spectator because he was able to realise the dramatic potency of the poet's work without any, or any but the slightest, adventitious aid outside the words of the play.

The Elizabethan playgoer needs no pity. It is ourselves who are deserving objects of compassion, because we lack those qualities, the possession of which enabled the Elizabethan to acknowledge in Shakespeare's work, despite its manner of production, "the delight and wonder of his stage." The imaginative faculty was far from universal among the Elizabethan playgoers. The playgoing mob always includes groundlings who delight exclusively in dumb shows and noise. Many of Shakespeare's contemporaries complained that there were playgoers who approved nothing "but puppetry and loved ridiculous antics," and that there were men who, going to the playhouse only "to laugh and feed fool-fat," "checked at all goodness there."[7] No public of any age or country is altogether free from such infirmities. But the reception accorded to Shakespeare's plays in the theatre of his day, in contemporary theatrical conditions, is proof-positive of a signal imaginative faculty in an exceptionally large proportion of the playgoers.

[Footnote 7: Chapman's Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois, Act I., Sc. i.]

To the Elizabethan actor a warm tribute is due. Shakespeare has declared with emphasis that no amount of scenery can secure genuine success on the stage for a great work of the imagination. He is no less emphatic in the value he sets on competent acting. In Hamlet, as every reader will remember, the dramatist points out the perennial defects of the actor, and shows how they may and must be corrected. He did all he could for the Elizabethan playgoer in the way of insisting that the art of acting must be studied seriously, and that the dramatist's words must reach the ears of the audience, clearly and intelligibly enunciated.

"Speak the speech, I pray you," he tells the actor, "as I pronounce it to you, trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus; but use all gently: for in the very torrent, tempest, and—as I may say—whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance, that may give it smoothness.

"Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion be your tutor: suit the action to the word, the word to the action; with this special observance, that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature. O! there be players that I have seen play, and heard others praise, and that highly, not to speak it profanely, that, neither having the accent of Christians nor the gait of Christian, pagan, nor man, have so strutted and bellowed that I have thought some of nature's journeymen had made men and not made them well, they imitated humanity so abominably."

The player amiably responds: "I hope we have reformed that indifferently with us." Shakespeare in the person of Hamlet retorts in a tone of some impatience: "O! reform it altogether. And let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them." The applause which welcomed Shakespeare's masterpieces on their first representation is adequate evidence that the leading Elizabethan actors in the main obeyed these instructions.


Nevertheless the final success of a great imaginative play on the stage does not depend entirely on the competence of the actor. Encircling and determining all conditions is the fitness of the audience. A great imaginative play well acted will not achieve genuine success unless the audience has at command sufficient imaginative power to induce in them an active sympathy with the efforts, not only of the actor, but of the dramatist.

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