About Shakespeare's time many new inventions and luxuries came in: masks, muffs, fans, periwigs, shoe-roses, love-handkerchiefs (tokens given by maids and gentlewomen to their favorites), heath-brooms for hair-brushes, scarfs, garters, waistcoats, flat-caps; also hops, turkeys, apricots, Venice glass, tobacco. In 1524, and for years after, was used this rhyme
"Turkeys, Carpes, Hops: Piccarel, and beers, Came into England: all in one year."
There were no coffee-houses as yet, for neither tea nor coffee was introduced till about 1661. Tobacco was first made known in England by Sir John Hawkins in 1565, though not commonly used by men and women till some years after. It was urged as a great medicine for many ills. Harrison says, 1573, "In these days the taking in of the smoke of the Indian herb called 'Tabaco,' by an instrument formed like a little ladle, whereby it passeth from the mouth into the head and stomach, is greatly taken up and used in England, against Rewmes and some other diseases engendered in the lungs and inward parts, and not without effect." It's use spread rapidly, to the disgust of James I. and others, who doubted that it was good for cold, aches, humors, and rheums. In 1614 it was said that seven thousand houses lived by this trade, and that L 399,375 a year was spent in smoke. Tobacco was even taken on the stage. Every base groom must have his pipe; it was sold in all inns and ale-houses, and the shops of apothecaries, grocers, and chandlers were almost never, from morning till night, without company still taking of tobacco.
There was a saying on the Continent that "England is a paradise for women, a prison for servants, and a hell or purgatory for horses." The society was very simple compared with the complex condition of ours, and yet it had more striking contrasts, and was a singular mixture of downrightness and artificiality; plainness and rudeness of speech went with the utmost artificiality of dress and manner. It is curious to note the insular, not to say provincial, character of the people even three centuries ago. When the Londoners saw a foreigner very well made or particularly handsome, they were accustomed to say, "It is a pity he is not an ENGLISHMAN." It is pleasant, I say, to trace this "certain condescension" in the good old times. Jacob Rathgeb (1592) says the English are magnificently dressed, and extremely proud and overbearing; the merchants, who seldom go unto other countries, scoff at foreigners, who are liable to be ill-used by street boys and apprentices, who collect in immense crowds and stop the way. Of course Cassandra Stubbes, whose mind was set upon a better country, has little good to say of his countrymen.
"As concerning the nature, propertie, and disposition of the people they be desirous of new fangles, praising things past, contemning things present, and coveting after things to come. Ambitious, proud, light, and unstable, ready to be carried away with every blast of wind." The French paid back with scorn the traditional hatred of the English for the French. Perlin (1558) finds the people "proud and seditious, with bad consciences and unfaithful to their word in war unfortunate, in peace unfaithful"; and there was a Spanish or Italian proverb: "England, good land, bad people." But even Perlin likes the appearance of the people: "The men are handsome, rosy, large, and dexterous, usually fair-skinned; the women are esteemed the most beautiful in the world, white as alabaster, and give place neither to Italian, Flemish, nor German; they are joyous, courteous, and hospitable (de bon recueil)." He thinks their manners, however, little civilized: for one thing, they have an unpleasant habit of eructation at the table (car iceux routent a la table sans honte & ignominie); which recalls Chaucer's description of the Trumpington miller's wife and daughter:
"Men might her rowtyng hearen a forlong, The wenche routeth eek par companye."
Another inference as to the table manners of the period is found in Coryat's "Crudities" (1611). He saw in Italy generally a curious custom of using a little fork for meat, and whoever should take the meat out of the dish with his fingers—would give offense. And he accounts for this peculiarity quite naturally: "The reason of this their curiosity is, because the Italian cannot by any means indure to have his dish touched with fingers, seeing all men's fingers are not alike cleane." Coryat found the use of the fork nowhere else in Christendom, and when he returned, and, oftentimes in England, imitated the Italian fashion, his exploit was regarded in a humorous light. Busino says that fruits were seldom served at dessert, but that the whole population were munching them in the streets all day long, and in the places of amusement; and it was an amusement to go out into the orchards and eat fruit on the spot, in a sort of competition of gormandize between the city belles and their admirers. And he avers that one young woman devoured twenty pounds of cherries, beating her opponent by two pounds and a half.
All foreigners were struck with the English love of music and drink, of banqueting and good cheer. Perlin notes a pleasant custom at table: during the feast you hear more than a hundred times, "Drink iou" (he loves to air his English), that is to say, "Je m'en vois boyre a toy." You respond, in their language, "Iplaigiu"; that is to say, "Je vous plege." If you thank them, they say in their language, "God tanque artelay"; that is, "Je vous remercie de bon coeur." And then, says the artless Frenchman, still improving on his English, you should respond thus: "Bigod, sol drink iou agoud oin." At the great and princely banquets, when the pledge went round and the heart's desire of lasting health, says the chronicler, "the same was straight wayes knowne, by sound of Drumme and Trumpet, and the cannon's loudest voyce." It was so in Hamlet's day:
"And as he drains his draughts of Rhenish down, The kettle-drum and trumpet thus bray out The triumph of his pledge."
According to Hentzner (1598), the English are serious, like the Germans, and love show and to be followed by troops of servants wearing the arms of their masters; they excel in music and dancing, for they are lively and active, though thicker of make than the French; they cut their hair close in the middle of the head, letting it grow on either side; "they are good sailors, and better pyrates, cunning, treacherous, and thievish;" and, he adds, with a touch of satisfaction, "above three hundred are said to be hanged annually in London." They put a good deal of sugar in their drink; they are vastly fond of great noises, firing of cannon, beating of drums, and ringing of bells, and when they have a glass in their heads they go up into some belfry, and ring the bells for hours together, for the sake of exercise. Perlin's comment is that men are hung for a trifle in England, and that you will not find many lords whose parents have not had their heads chopped off.
It is a pleasure to turn to the simple and hearty admiration excited in the breasts of all susceptible foreigners by the English women of the time. Van Meteren, as we said, calls the women beautiful, fair, well dressed, and modest. To be sure, the wives are, their lives only excepted, entirely in the power of their husbands, yet they have great liberty; go where they please; are shown the greatest honor at banquets, where they sit at the upper end of the table and are first served; are fond of dress and gossip and of taking it easy; and like to sit before their doors, decked out in fine clothes, in order to see and be seen by the passers-by. Rathgeb also agrees that the women have much more liberty than in any other place. When old Busino went to the Masque at Whitehall, his colleagues kept exclaiming, "Oh, do look at this one—oh, do see that! Whose wife is this?—and that pretty one near her, whose daughter is she?" There was some chaff mixed in, he allows, some shriveled skins and devotees of S. Carlo Borromeo, but the beauties greatly predominated.
In the great street pageants, it was the beauty and winsomeness of the London ladies, looking on, that nearly drove the foreigners wild. In 1606, upon the entry of the king of Denmark, the chronicler celebrates "the unimaginable number of gallant ladies, beauteous virgins, and other delicate dames, filling the windows of every house with kind aspect." And in 1638, when Cheapside was all alive with the pageant of the entry of the queen mother, "this miserable old queen," as Lilly calls Marie de' Medicis (Mr. Furnivall reproduces an old cut of the scene), M. de la Serre does not try to restrain his admiration for the pretty women on view: only the most fecund imagination can represent the content one has in admiring the infinite number of beautiful women, each different from the other, and each distinguished by some sweetness or grace to ravish the heart and take captive one's liberty. No sooner has he determined to yield to one than a new object of admiration makes him repent the precipitation of his judgment.
And all the other foreigners were in the like case of "goneness." Kiechel, writing in 1585, says, "Item, the women there are charming, and by nature so mighty pretty as I have scarcely ever beheld, for they do not falsify, paint, or bedaub themselves as in Italy or other places;" yet he confesses (and here is another tradition preserved) "they are somewhat awkward in their style of dress." His second "item" of gratitude is a Netherland custom that pleased him—whenever a foreigner or an inhabitant went to a citizen's house on business, or as a guest, he was received by the master, the lady, or the daughter, and "welcomed" (as it is termed in their language); "he has a right to take them by the arm and to kiss them, which is the custom of the country; and if any one does not do so, it is regarded and imputed as ignorance and ill-breeding on his part." Even the grave Erasmus, when he visited England, fell easily into this pretty practice, and wrote with untheological fervor of the "girls with angel faces," who were "so kind and obliging." "Wherever you come," he says, "you are received with a kiss by all; when you take your leave you are dismissed with kisses; you return, kisses are repeated. They come to visit you, kisses again; they leave you, you kiss them all round. Should they meet you anywhere, kisses in abundance in fine, wherever you move there is nothing but kisses"—a custom, says this reformer, who has not the fear of Stubbes before his eyes, "never to be sufficiently commended."
We shall find no more convenient opportunity to end this part of the social study of the age of Shakespeare than with this naive picture of the sex which most adorned it. Some of the details appear trivial; but grave history which concerns itself only with the actions of conspicuous persons, with the manoeuvres of armies, the schemes of politics, the battles of theologies, fails signally to give us the real life of the people by which we judge the character of an age.
When we turn from France to England in, the latter part of the sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth century, we are in another atmosphere; we encounter a literature that smacks of the soil, that is as varied, as racy, often as rude, as human life itself, and which cannot be adequately appreciated except by a study of the popular mind and the history of the time which produced it.
"Voltaire," says M. Guizot, "was the first person in France who spoke of Shakespeare's genius; and although he spoke of him merely as a barbarian genius, the French public were of the opinion that he had said too much in his favor. Indeed, they thought it nothing less than profanation to apply the words genius and glory to dramas which they considered as crude as they were coarse."
Guizot was one of the first of his nation to approach Shakespeare in the right spirit—that is, in the spirit in which he could hope for any enlightenment; and in his admirable essay on "Shakespeare and His Times," he pointed out the exact way in which any piece or period of literature should be studied, that is worth studying at all. He inquired into English civilization, into the habits, manners, and modes of thought of the people for whom Shakespeare wrote. This method, this inquiry into popular sources, has been carried much further since Guizot wrote, and it is now considered the most remunerative method, whether the object of study is literature or politics. By it not only is the literature of a period for the first time understood, but it is given its just place as an exponent of human life and a monument of human action.
The student who takes up Shakespeare's plays for the purpose of either amusement or cultivation, I would recommend to throw aside the whole load of commentary, and speculation, and disquisition, and devote himself to trying to find out first what was the London and the England of Shakespeare's day, what were the usages of all classes of society, what were the manners and the character of the people who crowded to hear his plays, or who denounced them as the works of the devil and the allies of sin. I say again to the student that by this means Shakespeare will become a new thing to him, his mind will be enlarged to the purpose and scope of the great dramatist, and more illumination will be cast upon the plays than is received from the whole race of inquisitors into his phrases and critics of his genius. In the light of contemporary life, its visions of empire, its spirit of adventure, its piracy, exploration, and warlike turmoil, its credulity and superstitious wonder at natural phenomena, its implicit belief in the supernatural, its faith, its virility of daring, coarseness of speech, bluntness of manner, luxury of apparel, and ostentation of wealth, the mobility of its shifting society, these dramas glow with a new meaning, and awaken a profounder admiration of the poet's knowledge of human life.
The experiences of the poet began with the rude and rural life of England, and when he passed into the presence of the court and into the bustle of great London in an age of amazing agitation, he felt still in his veins the throb of the popular blood. There were classic affectations in England, there were masks and mummeries and classic puerilities at court and in noble houses—Elizabeth's court would well have liked to be classical, remarks Guizot—but Shakespeare was not fettered by classic conventionalities, nor did he obey the unities, nor attempt to separate on the stage the tragedy and comedy of life—"immense and living stage," says the writer I like to quote because he is French, upon which all things are represented, as it were, in their solid form, and in the place which they occupied in a stormy and complicated civilization. In these dramas the comic element is introduced whenever its character of reality gives it the right of admission and the advantage of opportune appearance. Falstaff appears in the train of Henry V., and Doll Tear-Sheet in the train of Falstaff; the people surround the kings, and the soldiers crowd around their generals; all conditions of society, all the phases of human destiny appear by turns in juxtaposition, with the nature which properly belongs to them, and in the position which they naturally occupy. . . .
"Thus we find the entire world, the whole of human realities, reproduced by Shakespeare in tragedy, which, in his eyes, was the universal theatre of life and truth."
It is possible to make a brutal picture of the England of Shakespeare's day by telling nothing that is not true, and by leaving out much that is true. M. Taine, who has a theory to sustain, does it by a graphic catalogue of details and traits that cannot be denied; only there is a great deal in English society that he does not include, perhaps does not apprehend. Nature, he thinks, was never so completely acted out. These robust men give rein to all their passions, delight in the strength of their limbs like Carmen, indulge in coarse language, undisguised sensuality, enjoy gross jests, brutal buffooneries. Humanity is as much lacking as decency. Blood, suffering, does not move them. The court frequents bull and bear baitings; Elizabeth beats her maids, spits upon a courtier's fringed coat, boxes Essex's ears; great ladies beat their children and their servants. "The sixteenth century," he says, "is like a den of lions. Amid passions so strong as these there is not one lacking. Nature appears here in all its violence, but also in all its fullness. If nothing has been softened, nothing has been mutilated. It is the entire man who is displayed, heart, mind, body, senses, with his noblest and finest aspirations, as with his most bestial and savage appetites, without the preponderance of any dominant passion to cast him altogether in one direction, to exalt or degrade him. He has not become rigid as he will under Puritanism. He is not uncrowned as in the Restoration." He has entered like a young man into all the lusty experiences of life, every allurement is known, the sweetness and novelty of things are strong with him. He plunges into all sensations. "Such were the men of this time, Raleigh, Essex, Elizabeth, Henry VIII himself, excessive and inconstant, ready for devotion and for crime, violent in good and evil, heroic with strange weaknesses, humble with sudden changes of mood, never vile with premeditation like the roisterers of the Restoration, never rigid on principle like the Puritans of the Revolution, capable of weeping like children, and of dying like men, often base courtiers, more than once true knights, displaying constantly, amidst all these contradictions of bearing, only the overflowing of nature. Thus prepared, they could take in everything, sanguinary ferocity and refined generosity, the brutality of shameless debauchery, and the most divine innocence of love, accept all the characters, wantons and virgins, princes and mountebanks, pass quickly from trivial buffoonery to lyrical sublimities, listen alternately to the quibbles of clowns and the songs of lovers. The drama even, in order to satisfy the prolixity of their nature, must take all tongues, pompous, inflated verse, loaded with imagery, and side by side with this vulgar prose; more than this, it must distort its natural style and limits, put songs, poetical devices in the discourse of courtiers and the speeches of statesmen; bring on the stage the fairy world of opera, as Middleton says, gnomes, nymphs of the land and sea, with their groves and meadows; compel the gods to descend upon the stage, and hell itself to furnish its world of marvels. No other theatre is so complicated, for nowhere else do we find men so complete."
M. Taine heightens this picture in generalizations splashed with innumerable blood-red details of English life and character. The English is the most warlike race in Europe, most redoubtable in battle, most impatient of slavery. "English savages" is what Cellini calls them; and the great shins of beef with which they fill themselves nourish the force and ferocity of their instincts. To harden them thoroughly, institutions work in the same groove as nature. The nation is armed. Every man is a soldier, bound to have arms according to his condition, to exercise himself on Sundays and holidays. The State resembles an army; punishments must inspire terror; the idea of war is ever present. Such instincts, such a history, raises before them with tragic severity the idea of life; death is at hand, wounds, blood, tortures. The fine purple cloaks, the holiday garments, elsewhere signs of gayety of mind, are stained with blood and bordered with black. Throughout a stern discipline, the axe ready for every suspicion of treason; "great men, bishops, a chancellor, princes, the king's relations, queens, a protector kneeling in the straw, sprinkled the Tower with their blood; one after the other they marched past, stretched out their necks; the Duke of Buckingham, Queen Anne Boleyn, Queen Catherine Howard, the Earl of Surrey, Admiral Seymour, the Duke of Somerset, Lady Jane Grey and her husband, the Duke of Northumberland, the Earl of Essex, all on the throne, or on the steps of the throne, in the highest ranks of honor, beauty, youth, genius; of the bright procession nothing is left but senseless trunks, marred by the tender mercies of the executioner."
The gibbet stands by the highways, heads of traitors and criminals grin on the city gates. Mournful legends multiply, church-yard ghosts, walking spirits. In the evening, before bedtime, in the vast country houses, in the poor cottages, people talk of the coach which is seen drawn by headless horses, with headless postilions and coachmen. All this, with unbounded luxury, unbridled debauchery, gloom, and revelry hand in hand. "A threatening and sombre fog veils their mind like their sky, and joy, like the sun, pierces through it and upon them strongly and at intervals." All this riot of passion and frenzy of vigorous life, this madness and sorrow, in which life is a phantom and destiny drives so remorselessly, Taine finds on the stage and in the literature of the period.
To do him justice, he finds something else, something that might give him a hint of the innate soundness of English life in its thousands of sweet homes, something of that great force of moral stability, in the midst of all violence and excess of passion and performance, which makes a nation noble. "Opposed to this band of tragic figures," which M. Taine arrays from the dramas, "with their contorted features, brazen fronts, combative attitudes, is a troop (he says) of timid figures, tender before everything, the most graceful and love-worthy whom it has been given to man to depict. In Shakespeare you will meet them in Miranda, Juliet, Desdemona, Virginia, Ophelia, Cordelia, Imogen; but they abound also in the others; and it is a characteristic of the race to have furnished them, as it is of the drama to have represented them. By a singular coincidence the women are more of women, the men more of men, here than elsewhere. The two natures go to its extreme—in the one to boldness, the spirit of enterprise and resistance, the warlike, imperious, and unpolished character; in the other to sweetness, devotion, patience, inextinguishable affection (hence the happiness and strength of the marriage tie), a thing unknown in distant lands, and in France especially a woman here gives herself without drawing back, and places her glory and duty in obedience, forgiveness, adoration, wishing, and pretending only to be melted and absorbed daily deeper and deeper in him whom she has freely and forever chosen." This is an old German instinct. The soul in this race is at once primitive and serious. Women are disposed to follow the noble dream called duty. "Thus, supported by innocence and conscience, they introduce into love a profound and upright sentiment, abjure coquetry, vanity, and flirtation; they do not lie, they are not affected. When they love they are not tasting a forbidden fruit, but are binding themselves for their whole life. Thus understood, love becomes almost a holy thing; the spectator no longer wishes to be malicious or to jest; women do not think of their own happiness, but of that of the loved ones; they aim not at pleasure, but at devotion."
Thus far M. Taine's brilliant antitheses—the most fascinating and most dangerous model for a young writer. But we are indebted to him for a most suggestive study of the period. His astonishment, the astonishment of the Gallic mind, at what he finds, is a measure of the difference in the literature of the two races as an expression of their life. It was natural that he should somewhat exaggerate what he regards as the source of this expression, leaving out of view, as he does, certain great forces and currents which an outside observer cannot feel as the race itself feels. We look, indeed, for the local color of this English literature in the manners and habits of the times, traits of which Taine has so skillfully made a mosaic from Harrison, Stubbes, Stowe, Holinshed, and the pages of Reed and Drake; but we look for that which made it something more than a mirror of contemporary manners, vices, and virtues, made it representative of universal men, to other causes and forces-such as the Reformation, the immense stir, energy, and ambition of the age (the result of invention and discovery), newly awakened to the sense that there was a world to be won and made tributary; that England, and, above all places on the globe at that moment, London, was the centre of a display of energy and adventure such as has been scarcely paralleled in history. And underneath it all was the play of an uneasy, protesting democracy, eager to express itself in adventure, by changing its condition, in the joy of living and overcoming, and in literature, with small regard for tradition or the unities.
When Shakespeare came up to London with his first poems in his pocket, the town was so great and full of marvels, and luxury, and entertainment, as to excite the astonishment of continental visitors. It swarmed with soldiers, adventurers, sailors who were familiar with all seas and every port, men with projects, men with marvelous tales. It teemed with schemes of colonization, plans of amassing wealth by trade, by commerce, by planting, mining, fishing, and by the quick eye and the strong hand. Swaggering in the coffee-houses and ruffling it in the streets were the men who had sailed with Frobisher and Drake and Sir Humphrey Gilbert, Hawkins, and Sir Richard Granville; had perhaps witnessed the heroic death of Sir Philip Sidney, at Zutphen; had served with Raleigh in Anjou, Picardy, Languedoc, in the Netherlands, in the Irish civil war; had taken part in the dispersion of the Spanish Armada, and in the bombardment of Cadiz; had filled their cups to the union of Scotland with England; had suffered shipwreck on the Barbary Coast, or had, by the fortune of war, felt the grip of the Spanish Inquisition; who could tell tales of the marvels seen in new-found America and the Indies, and, perhaps, like Captain John Smith, could mingle stories of the naive simplicity of the natives beyond the Atlantic, with charming narratives of the wars in Hungary, the beauties of the seraglio of the Grand Turk, and the barbaric pomp of the Khan of Tartary. There were those in the streets who would see Raleigh go to the block on the scaffold in Old Palace Yard, who would fight against King Charles on the fields of Newbury or Naseby, Kineton or Marston Moor, and perchance see the exit of Charles himself from another scaffold erected over against the Banqueting House.
Although London at the accession of James I.(1603) had only about one hundred and fifty thousand inhabitants—the population of England then numbering about five million—it was so full of life and activity that Frederick, Duke of Wurtemberg, who saw it a few years before, in 1592, was impressed with it as a large, excellent, and mighty city of business, crowded with people buying and selling merchandise, and trading in almost every corner of the world, a very populous city, so that one can scarcely pass along the streets on account of the throng; the inhabitants, he says, are magnificently appareled, extremely proud and overbearing, who scoff and laugh at foreigners, and no one dare oppose them lest the street boys and apprentices collect together in immense crowds and strike to right and left unmercifully without regard to persons.
There prevailed an insatiable curiosity for seeing strange sights and hearing strange adventures, with an eager desire for visiting foreign countries, which Shakespeare and all the play-writers satirize. Conversation turned upon the wonderful discoveries of travelers, whose voyages to the New World occupied much of the public attention. The exaggeration which from love of importance inflated the narratives, the poets also take note of. There was also a universal taste for hazard in money as well as in travel, for putting it out on risks at exorbitant interest, and the habit of gaming reached prodigious excess. The passion for sudden wealth was fired by the success of the sea-rovers, news of which inflamed the imagination. Samuel Kiechel, a merchant of Ulm, who was in London in 1585, records that, "news arrived of a Spanish ship captured by Drake, in which it was said there were two millions of uncoined gold and silver in ingots, fifty thousand crowns in coined reals, seven thousand hides, four chests of pearls, each containing two bushels, and some sacks of cochineal—the whole valued at twenty-five barrels of gold; it was said to be one year and a half's tribute from Peru."
The passion for travel was at such a height that those who were unable to accomplish distant journeys, but had only crossed over into France and Italy, gave themselves great airs on their return. "Farewell, monsieur traveler," says Shakespeare; "look, you lisp, and wear strange suits; disable all the benefits of your own country; be out of love with your nativity, and almost chide God for making you that countenance you are, or I will scarce think you have swam in a gondola." The Londoners dearly loved gossip, and indulged in exaggeration of speech and high-flown compliment. One gallant says to another: "O, signior, the star that governs my life is contentment; give me leave to interre myself in your arms."—"Not so, sir, it is too unworthy an enclosure to contain such preciousness!"
Dancing was the daily occupation rather than the amusement at court and elsewhere, and the names of dances exceeded the list of the virtues—such as the French brawl, the pavon, the measure, the canary, and many under the general titles of corantees, jigs, galliards, and fancies. At the dinner and ball given by James I. to Juan Fernandez de Velasco, Constable of Castile, in 1604, fifty ladies of honor, very elegantly dressed and extremely beautiful, danced with the noblemen and gentlemen. Prince Henry danced a galliard with a lady, "with much sprightliness and modesty, cutting several capers in the course of the dance"; the Earl of Southampton led out the queen, and with three other couples danced a brando, and so on, the Spanish visitors looking on. When Elizabeth was old and had a wrinkled face and black teeth, she was one day discovered practicing the dance step alone, to the sound of a fiddle, determined to keep up to the last the limberness and agility necessary to impress foreign ambassadors with her grace and youth. There was one custom, however, that may have made dancing a labor of love: it was considered ill manners for the gentleman not to kiss his partner. Indeed, in all households and in all ranks of society the guest was expected to salute thus all the ladies a custom which the grave Erasmus, who was in England in the reign of Henry VIII., found not disagreeable.
Magnificence of display went hand in hand with a taste for cruel and barbarous amusements. At this same dinner to the Constable of Castile, the two buffets of the king and queen in the audience-chamber, where the banquet was held, were loaded with plate of exquisite workmanship, rich vessels of gold, agate, and other precious stones. The constable drank to the king the health of the queen from the lid of a cup of agate of extraordinary beauty and richness, set with diamonds and rubies, praying his majesty would condescend to drink the toast from the cup, which he did accordingly, and then the constable directed that the cup should remain in his majesty's buffet. The constable also drank to the queen the health of the king from a very beautiful dragon-shaped cup of crystal garnished with gold, drinking from the cover, and the queen, standing up, gave the pledge from the cup itself, and then the constable ordered that the cup should remain in the queen's buffet.
The banquet lasted three hours, when the cloth was removed, the table was placed upon the ground—that is, removed from the dais—and their majesties, standing upon it, washed their hands in basins, as did the others. After the dinner was the ball, and that ended, they took their places at the windows of a roam that looked out upon a square, where a platform was raised and a vast crowd was assembled to see the king's bears fight with greyhounds. This afforded great amusement. Presently a bull, tied to the end of a rope, was fiercely baited by dogs. After this tumblers danced upon a rope and performed feats of agility on horseback. The constable and his attendants were lighted home by half an hundred halberdiers with torches, and, after the fatigues of the day, supped in private. We are not surprised to read that on Monday, the 30th, the constable awoke with a slight attack of lumbago.
Like Elizabeth, all her subjects were fond of the savage pastime of bear and bull baiting. It cannot be denied that this people had a taste for blood, took delight in brutal encounters, and drew the sword and swung the cudgel with great promptitude; nor were they fastidious in the matter of public executions. Kiechel says that when the criminal was driven in the cart under the gallows, and left hanging by the neck as the cart moved from under him, his friends and acquaintances pulled at his legs in order that he might be strangled the sooner.
When Shakespeare was managing his theatres and writing his plays London was full of foreigners, settled in the city, who no doubt formed part of his audience, for they thought that English players had attained great perfection. In 1621 there were as many as ten thousand strangers in London, engaged in one hundred and twenty-one different trades. The poet need not go far from Blackfriars to pick up scraps of German and folk-lore, for the Hanse merchants were located in great numbers in the neighborhood of the steel-yard in Lower Thames Street.
Foreigners as well as contemporary chronicles and the printed diatribes against luxury bear witness to the profusion in all ranks of society and the variety and richness in apparel. There was a rage for the display of fine clothes. Elizabeth left hanging in her wardrobe above three thousand dresses when she was called to take that unseemly voyage down the stream, on which the clown's brogan jostles the queen's slipper. The plays of Shakespeare, Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher, and of all the dramatists, are a perfect commentary on the fashions of the day, but a knowledge of the fashions is necessary to a perfect enjoyment of the plays. We see the fine lady in a gown of velvet (the foreigners thought it odd that velvet should be worn in the street), or cloth of gold and silver tissue, her hair eccentrically dressed, and perhaps dyed, a great hat with waving feathers, sometimes a painted face, maybe a mask or a muffler hiding all the features except the eyes, with a muff, silk stockings, high-heeled shoes, imitated from the "chopine" of Venice, perfumed bracelets, necklaces, and gloves—"gloves sweet as damask roses"—a pocket-handkerchief wrought in gold and silver, a small looking-glass pendant at the girdle, and a love-lock hanging wantonly over the shoulder, artificial flowers at the corsage, and a mincing step. "These fashionable women, when they are disappointed, dissolve into tears, weep with one eye, laugh with the other, or, like children, laugh and cry they can both together, and as much pity is to be taken of a woman weeping as of a goose going barefoot," says old Burton.
The men had even greater fondness for finery. Paul Hentzner, the Brandenburg jurist, in 1598, saw, at the Fair at St. Bartholomew, the lord mayor, attended by twelve gorgeous aldermen, walk in a neighboring field, dressed in a scarlet gown, and about his neck a golden chain, to which hung a Golden Fleece. Men wore the hair long and flowing, with high hats and plumes of feathers, and carried muffs like the women; gallants sported gloves on their hats as tokens of ladies' favors, jewels and roses in the ears, a long love-lock under the left ear, and gems in a ribbon round the neck. This tall hat was called a "capatain." Vincentio, in the "Taming of the Shrew," exclaims: "O fine villain! A silken doublet! A velvet hose! A scarlet cloak! And a capatain hat!" There was no limit to the caprice and extravagance. Hose and breeches of silk, velvet, or other rich stuff, and fringed garters wrought of gold or silver, worth five pounds apiece, are some of the items noted. Burton says, "'Tis ordinary for a gallant to put a thousand oaks and an hundred oxen into a suit of apparel, to wear a whole manor on his back." Even serving-men and tailors wore jewels in their shoes.
We should note also the magnificence in the furnishing of houses, the arras, tapestries, cloth of gold and silver, silk hangings of many colors, the splendid plate on the tables and sideboards. Even in the houses of the middle classes the furniture was rich and comfortable, and there was an air of amenity in the chambers and parlors strewn with sweet herbs and daily decked with pretty nosegays and fragrant flowers. Lights were placed on antique candelabra, or, wanting these at suppers, there were living candleholders. "Give me a torch," says Romeo; "I'll be a candle-holder, and look on." Knowledge of the details of luxury of an English home of the sixteenth century will make exceedingly vivid hosts of allusions in Shakespeare.
Servants were numerous in great households, a large retinue being a mark of gentility, and hospitality was unbounded. During the lord mayor's term in London he kept open house, and every day any stranger or foreigner could dine at his table, if he could find an empty seat. Dinner, served at eleven in the early years of James, attained a degree of epicureanism rivaling dinners of the present day, although the guests ate with their fingers or their knives, forks not coming in till 1611. There was mighty eating and swigging at the banquets, and carousing was carried to an extravagant height, if we may judge by the account of an orgy at the king's palace in 1606, for the delectation of the King and Queen of Denmark, when the company and even their majesties abandoned discretion and sobriety, and "the ladies are seen to roll about in intoxication."
The manners of the male population of the period, says Nathan Drake, seem to have been compounded from the characters of the two sovereigns. Like Elizabeth, they are brave, magnanimous, and prudent; and sometimes, like James, they are credulous, curious, and dissipated. The credulity and superstition of the age, and its belief in the supernatural, and the sumptuousness of masques and pageants at the court and in the city, of which we read so much in the old chronicles, are abundantly reflected in the pages of Jonson, Shakespeare, and other writers.
The town was full of public-houses and pleasure-gardens, but, curiously enough, the favorite place of public parading was the middle aisle of St. Paul's Cathedral—"Paul's Walk," as it was called—which was daily frequented by nobles, gentry, perfumed gallants, and ladies, from ten to twelve and three to six o'clock, to talk on business, politics, or pleasure. Hither came, to acquire the fashions, make assignations, arrange for the night's gaming, or shun the bailiff, the gallant, the gamester, the ladies whose dresses were better than their manners, the stale knight, the captain out of service. Here Falstaff purchased Bardolph. "I bought him," say's the knight, "at Paul's." The tailors went there to get the fashions of dress, as the gallants did to display them, one suit before dinner and another after. What a study was this varied, mixed, flaunting life, this dance of pleasure and license before the very altar of the church, for the writers of satire, comedy, and tragedy!
But it is not alone town life and court life and the society of the fine folk that is reflected in the English drama and literature of the seventeenth century, and here is another wide difference between it and the French literature of the same period; rural England and the popular life of the country had quite as much to do in giving tone and color to the writings of the time. It is necessary to know rural England to enter into the spirit of this literature, and to appreciate how thoroughly it took hold of life in every phase. Shakespeare knew it well. He drew from life the country gentleman, the squire, the parson, the pedantic schoolmaster who was regarded as half conjurer, the yeoman or farmer, the dairy maids, the sweet English girls, the country louts, shepherds, boors, and fools. How he loved a fool! He had talked with all these persons, and knew their speeches and humors. He had taken part in the country festivals-May Day, Plow Monday, the Sheep Shearing, the Morris Dances and Maud Marian, the Harvest Home and Twelfth Night. The rustic merrymakings, the feasts in great halls, the games on the greensward, the love of wonders and of marvelous tales, the regard for portents, the naive superstitions of the time pass before us in his pages. Drake, in his "Shakespeare and his Times," gives a graphic and indeed charming picture of the rural life of this century, drawn from Harrison and other sources.
In his spacious hall, floored with stones and lighted by large transom windows, hung with coats of mail and helmets, and all military accoutrements, long a prey to rust, the country squire, seated at a raised table at one end, held a baronial state and dispensed prodigal hospitality. The long table was divided into upper and lower messes by a huge salt-cellar; and the consequence of the guests was marked by their seats above or below the salt. The distinction extended to the fare, for wine frequently circulated only above the salt, and below it the food was of coarser quality. The literature of the time is full of allusions to this distinction. But the luxury of the table and good cooking were well understood in the time of Elizabeth and James. There was massive eating done in those days, when the guests dined at eleven, rose from the banquet to go to evening prayers, and returned to a supper at five or six, which was often as substantial as the dinner. Gervase Markham in his "English Housewife," after treating of the ordering of great feasts, gives directions for "a more humble feast of an ordinary proportion." This "humble feast," he says, should consist for the first course of "sixteen full dishes, that is, dishes of meat that are of substance, and not empty, or for shew—as thus, for example: first, a shield of brawn with mustard; secondly, a boyl'd capon; thirdly, a boyl'd piece of beef; fourthly, a chine of beef rosted; fifthly, a neat's tongue rosted; sixthly, a pig rosted; seventhly, chewets bak'd; eighthly, a goose rosted; ninthly, a swan rosted; tenthly, a turkey rosted; the eleventh, a haunch of venison rosted; the twelfth, a pasty of venison; the thirteenth, a kid with a pudding in the belly; the fourteenth, an olive-pye; the fifteenth, a couple of capons; the sixteenth, a custard or dowsets. Now to these full dishes may be added sallets, fricases, 'quelque choses,' and devised paste; as many dishes more as will make no less than two and thirty dishes, which is as much as can conveniently stand on one table, and in one mess; and after this manner you may proportion both your second and third course, holding fullness on one half the dishes, and shew in the other, which will be both frugal in the splendor, contentment to the guest, and much pleasure and delight to the beholders." After this frugal repast it needed an interval of prayers before supper.
The country squire was a long-lived but not always an intellectual animal. He kept hawks of all kinds, and all sorts of hounds that ran buck, fox, hare, otter, and badger. His great hall was commonly strewn with marrow-bones, and full of hawks' perches, of hounds, spaniels, and terriers. His oyster-table stood at one end of the room, and oysters he ate at dinner and supper. At the upper end of the room stood a small table with a double desk, one side of which held a church Bible, the other Fox's "Book of Martyrs." He drank a glass or two of wine at his meals, put syrup of gilly-flower in his sack, and always had a tun-glass of small beer standing by him, which he often stirred about with rosemary. After dinner, with a glass of ale by his side he improved his mind by listening to the reading of a choice passage out of the "Book of Martyrs."
This is a portrait of one Henry Hastings, of Dorsetshire, in Gilpin's "Forest Scenery." He lived to be a hundred, and never lost his sight nor used spectacles. He got on horseback without help, and rode to the death of the stag till he was past fourscore.
The plain country fellow, plowman, or clown, is several pegs lower, and described by Bishop Earle as one that manures his ground well, but lets himself lie fallow and untitled. His hand guides the plow, and the plow his thoughts. His mind is not much disturbed by objects, but he can fix a half-hour's contemplation on a good fat cow. His habitation is under a poor thatched roof, distinguished from his barn only by loop-holes that let out the smoke. Dinner is serious work, for he sweats at it as much as at his labor, and he is a terrible fastener on a piece of beef. His religion is a part of his copyhold, which he takes from his landlord and refers it wholly to his discretion, but he is a good Christian in his way, that is, he comes to church in his best clothes, where he is capable only of two prayers—for rain and fair weather.
The country clergymen, at least those of the lower orders, or readers, were distinguished in Shakespeare's time by the appellation "Sir," as Sir Hugh, in the "Merry Wives," Sir Topas, in "Twelfth Night," Sir Oliver, in "As You Like It." The distinction is marked between priesthood and knighthood when Vista says, "I am one that would rather go with Sir Priest than Sir Knight." The clergy were not models of conduct in the days of Elizabeth, but their position excites little wonder when we read that they were often paid less than the cook and the minstrel.
There was great fondness in cottage and hall for merry tales of errant knights, lovers, lords, ladies, dwarfs, friars, thieves, witches, goblins, for old stories told by the fireside, with a toast of ale on the hearth, as in Milton's allusion
"—-to the nut-brown ale, With stories told of many a feat"
A designation of winter in "Love's Labour's Lost" is
"When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl."
To "turne a crab" is to roast a wild apple in the fire in order to throw it hissing hot into a bowl of nutbrown ale, into which had been put a toast with some spice and sugar. Puck describes one of his wanton pranks:
"And sometimes I lurk in a gossip's bowl, In very likeness of a roasted crab, And when she drinks against her lips I bob:"
I love no roast, says John Still, in "Gammer Gurton's Needle,"
"I love no rost, but a nut-browne torte, And a crab layde in the fyre; A lytle bread shall do me stead, Much bread I not desire."
In the bibulous days of Shakespeare, the peg tankard, a species of wassail or wish-health bowl, was still in use. Introduced to restrain intemperance, it became a cause of it, as every drinker was obliged to drink down to the peg. We get our expression of taking a man "a peg lower," or taking him "down a peg," from this custom.
In these details I am not attempting any complete picture of the rural life at this time, but rather indicating by illustrations the sort of study which illuminates its literature. We find, indeed, if we go below the surface of manners, sober, discreet, and sweet domestic life, and an appreciation of the virtues. Of the English housewife, says Gervase Markham, was not only expected sanctity and holiness of life, but "great modesty and temperance, as well outwardly as inwardly. She must be of chaste thoughts, stout courage, patient, untired, watchful, diligent, witty, pleasant, constant in friendship, full of good neighborhood, wise in discourse, but not frequent therein, sharp and quick of speech, but not bitter or talkative, secret in her affairs, comportable in her counsels, and generally skillful in the worthy knowledges which do belong to her vocation." This was the mistress of the hospitable house of the country knight, whose chief traits were loyalty to church and state, a love of festivity, and an ardent attachment to field sports. His well-educated daughter is charmingly described in an exquisite poem by Drayton:
He had, as antique stories tell,
He had, as antique stories tell, A daughter cleaped Dawsabel, A maiden fair and free; And for she was her father's heir, Full well she ycond the leir Of mickle courtesy.
"The silk well couth she twist and twine, And make the fine march-pine, And with the needle work: And she couth help the priest to say His matins on a holy day, And sing a psalm in Kirk.
"She wore a frock of frolic green Might well become a maiden queen, Which seemly was to see; A hood to that so neat and fine, In color like the columbine, Ywrought full featously.
"Her features all as fresh above As is the grass that grows by Dove, And lythe as lass of Kent. Her skin as soft as Lemster wool, As white as snow on Peakish Hull, Or swan that swims in Trent.
"This maiden in a morn betime Went forth when May was in the prime To get sweet setywall, The honey-suckle, the harlock, The lily, and the lady-smock, To deck her summer hall."
How late such a simple and pretty picture could have been drawn to life is uncertain, but by the middle of the seventeenth century the luxury of the town had penetrated the country, even into Scotland. The dress of a rich farmer's wife is thus described by Dunbar. She had "a robe of fine scarlet, with a white hood, a gay purse and gingling keys pendant at her side from a silken belt of silver tissue; on each finger she wore two rings, and round her waist was bound a sash of grass-green silk, richly embroidered with silver."
Shakespeare was the mirror of his time in things small as well as great. How far he drew his characters from personal acquaintances has often been discussed. The clowns, tinkers, shepherds, tapsters, and such folk, he probably knew by name. In the Duke of Manchester's "Court and Society from Elizabeth to Anne" is a curious suggestion about Hamlet. Reading some letters from Robert, Earl of Essex, to Lady Rich, his sister, the handsome, fascinating, and disreputable Penelope Devereaux, he notes, in their humorous melancholy and discontent with mankind, something in tone and even language which suggests the weak and fantastic side of Hamlet's mind, and asks if the poet may not have conceived his character of Hamlet from Essex, and of Horatio from Southampton, his friend and patron. And he goes on to note some singular coincidences. Essex was supposed by many to have a good title to the throne. In person he had his father's beauty and was all that Shakespeare has described the Prince of Denmark. His mother had been tempted from her duty while her noble and generous husband was alive, and this husband was supposed to have been poisoned by her and her paramour. After the father's murder the seducer had married the guilty mother. The father had not perished without expressing suspicion of foul play against himself, yet sending his forgiveness to his faithless wife. There are many other agreements in the facts of the case and the incidents of the play. The relation of Claudius to Hamlet is the same as that of Leicester to Essex: under pretense of fatherly friendship he was suspicious of his motives, jealous of his actions; kept him much in the country and at college; let him see little of his mother, and clouded his prospects in the world by an appearance of benignant favor. Gertrude's relations with her son Hamlet were much like those of Lettice with Robert Devereaux. Again, it is suggested, in his moodiness, in his college learning, in his love for the theatre and the players, in his desire for the fiery action for which his nature was most unfit, there are many kinds of hints calling up an image of the Danish Prince.
This suggestion is interesting in the view that we find in the characters of the Elizabethan drama not types and qualities, but individuals strongly projected, with all their idiosyncrasies and contradictions. These dramas touch our sympathies at all points, and are representative of human life today, because they reflected the human life of their time. This is supremely true of Shakespeare, and almost equally true of Jonson and many of the other stars of that marvelous epoch. In England as well as in France, as we have said, it was the period of the classic revival; but in England the energetic reality of the time was strong enough to break the classic fetters, and to use classic learning for modern purposes. The English dramatists, like the French, used classic histories and characters. But two things are to be noted in their use of them. First, that the characters and the play of mind and passion in them are thoroughly English and of the modern time. And second, and this seems at first a paradox, they are truer to the classic spirit than the characters in the contemporary French drama. This results from the fact that they are truer to the substance of things, to universal human nature, while the French seem to be in great part an imitation, having root neither in the soil of France nor Attica. M. Guizot confesses that France, in order to adopt the ancient models, was compelled to limit its field in some sort to one corner of human existence. He goes on to say that the present "demands of the drama pleasures and emotions that can no longer be supplied by the inanimate representation of a world that has ceased to exist. The classic system had its origin in the life of the time; that time has passed away; its image subsists in brilliant colors in its works, but can no more be reproduced." Our own literary monuments must rest on other ground. "This ground is not the ground of Corneille or Racine, nor is it that of Shakespeare; it is our own; but Shakespeare's system, as it appears to me, may furnish the plans according to which genius ought now to work. This system alone includes all those social conditions and those general and diverse feelings, the simultaneous conjuncture and activity of which constitute for us at the present day the spectacle of human things."
That is certainly all that any one can claim for Shakespeare and his fellow-dramatists. They cannot be models in form any more than Sophocles and Euripides; but they are to be followed in making the drama, or any literature, expressive of its own time, while it is faithful to the emotions and feeling of universal human nature. And herein, it seems to me, lies the broad distinction between most of the English and French literature of the latter part of the sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth centuries. Perhaps I may be indulged in another observation on this topic, touching a later time. Notwithstanding the prevalent notion that the French poets are the sympathetic heirs of classic culture, it appears to me that they are not so imbued with the true classic spirit, art, and mythology as some of our English poets, notably Keats and Shelley.
Ben Jonson was a man of extensive and exact classical erudition; he was a solid scholar in the Greek and Roman literatures, in the works of the philosophers, poets, and historians. He was also a man of uncommon attainments in all the literary knowledge of his time. In some of his tragedies his classic learning was thought to be ostentatiously displayed, but this was not true of his comedy, and on the whole he was too strong to be swamped in pseudo-classicism. For his experience of men and of life was deep and varied. Before he became a public actor and dramatist, and served the court and fashionable society with his entertaining, if pedantic, masques, he had been student, tradesman, and soldier; he had traveled in Flanders and seen Paris, and wandered on foot through the length of England. London he knew as well as a man knows his own house and club, the comforts of its taverns, the revels of lords and ladies, the sports of Bartholomew Fair, and the humors of suburban villages; all the phases, language, crafts, professions of high and low city life were familiar to him. And in his comedies, as Mr. A. W. Ward pertinently says, his marvelously vivid reproduction of manners is unsurpassed by any of his contemporaries. "The age lives in his men and women, his country gulls and town gulls, his imposters and skeldering captains, his court ladies and would-be court ladies, his puling poetasters and whining Puritans, and, above all, in the whole ragamuffin rout of his Bartholomew Fair. Its pastimes, fashionable and unfashionable, its games and vapors and jeering, its high-polite courtships and its pulpit-shows, its degrading superstitions and confounding hallucinations, its clubs of naughty ladies and its offices of lying news, its taverns and its tobacco shops, its giddy heights and its meanest depths—all are brought before us by our author."
No, he was not swamped by classicism, but he was affected by it, and just here, and in that self-consciousness which Shakespeare was free from, and which may have been more or less the result of his classic erudition, he fails of being one of the universal poets of mankind. The genius of Shakespeare lay in his power to so use the real and individual facts of life as to raise in the minds of his readers a broader and nobler conception of human life than they had conceived before. This is creative genius; this is the idealist dealing faithfully with realistic material; this is, as we should say in our day, the work of the artist as distinguished from the work of the photographer. It may be an admirable but it is not the highest work of the sculptor, the painter, or the writer, that does not reveal to the mind—that comes into relation with it something before out of his experience and beyond the facts either brought before him or with which he is acquainted.
What influence Shakespeare had upon the culture and taste of his own time and upon his immediate audience would be a most interesting inquiry. We know what his audiences were. He wrote for the people, and the theatre in his day was a popular amusement for the multitude, probably more than it was a recreation for those who enjoyed the culture of letters. A taste for letters was prevalent among the upper class, and indeed was fashionable among both ladies and gentlemen of rank. In this the court of Elizabeth set the fashion. The daughter of the duchess was taught not only to distill strong waters, but to construe Greek. When the queen was translating Socrates or Seneca, the maids of honor found it convenient to affect at least a taste for the classics. For the nobleman and the courtier an intimacy with Greek, Latin, and Italian was essential to "good form." But the taste for erudition was mainly confined to the metropolis or the families who frequented it, and to persons of rank, and did not pervade the country or the middle classes. A few of the country gentry had some pretension to learning, but the majority cared little except for hawks and hounds, gaming and drinking; and if they read it was some old chronicle, or story of knightly adventure, "Amadis de Gaul," or a stray playbook, or something like the "History of Long Meg of Westminster," or perhaps a sheet of news. To read and write were still rare accomplishments in the country, and Dogberry expressed a common notion when he said reading and writing come by nature. Sheets of news had become common in the town in James's time, the first newspaper being the English Mercury, which appeared in April, 1588, and furnished food for Jonson's satire in his "Staple of News." His accusation has a familiar sound when he says that people had a "hunger and thirst after published pamphlets of news, set out every Saturday, but made all at home, and no syllable of truth in them."
Though Elizabeth and James were warm patrons of the theatre, the court had no such influence over the plays and players as had the court in Paris at the same period. The theatres were built for the people, and the audiences included all classes. There was a distinction between what were called public and private theatres, but the public frequented both. The Shakespeare theatres, at which his plays were exclusively performed, were the Globe, called public, on the Bankside, and the Blackfriars, called private, on the City side, the one for summer, the other for winter performances. The Blackfriars was smaller than the Globe, was roofed over, and needed to be lighted with candles, and was frequented more by the better class than the more popular Globe. There is no evidence that Elizabeth ever attended the public theatres, but the companies were often summoned to play before her in Whitehall, where the appointments and scenery were much better than in the popular houses.
The price of general admission to the Globe and Blackfriars was sixpence, at the Fashion Theatre twopence, and at some of the inferior theatres one penny. The boxes at the Globe were a shilling, at the Blackfriars one-and-six. The usual net receipts of a performance were from nine to ten pounds, and this was about the sum that Elizabeth paid to companies for a performance at Whitehall, which was always in the evening and did not interfere with regular hours. The theatres opened as early as one o'clock and not later than three in the afternoon. The crowds that filled the pit and galleries early, to secure places, amused themselves variously before the performance began: they drank ale, smoked, fought for apples, cracked nuts, chaffed the boxes, and a few read the cheap publications of the day that were hawked in the theatre. It was a rough and unsavory audience in pit and gallery, but it was a responsive one, and it enjoyed the acting with little help to illusion in the way of scenery. In fact, scenery did not exist, as we understand it. A board inscribed with the name of the country or city indicated the scene of action. Occasionally movable painted scenes were introduced. The interior roof of the stage was painted sky-blue, or hung with drapery of that tint, to represent the heavens. But when the idea of a dark, starless night was to be imposed, or tragedy was to be acted, these heavens were hung with black stuffs, a custom illustrated in many allusions in Shakespeare, like that in the line,
"Hung be the heavens in black, yield day to night"
To hang the stage with black was to prepare it for tragedy. The costumes of the players were sometimes less niggardly than the furnishing of the stage, for it was an age of rich and picturesque apparel, and it was not difficult to procure the cast-off clothes of fine gentlemen for stage use. But there was no lavishing of expense. I am recalling these details to show that the amusement was popular and cheap. The ordinary actors, including the boys and men who took women's parts (for women did not appear on the stage till after the Restoration) received only about five or six shillings a week (for Sundays and all), and the first-class actor, who had a share in the net receipts, would not make more than ninety pounds a year. The ordinary price paid for a new play was less than seven pounds; Oldys, on what authority is not known, says that Shakespeare received only five pounds for "Hamlet."
The influence of the theatre upon politics, contemporary questions that interested the public, and morals, was early recognized in the restraints put upon representations by the censorship, and in the floods of attacks upon its licentious and demoralizing character. The plays of Shakespeare did not escape the most bitter animadversions of the moral reformers. We have seen how Shakespeare mirrored his age, but we have less means of ascertaining what effect he produced upon the life of his time. Until after his death his influence was mainly direct, upon the play-goers, and confined to his auditors. He had been dead seven years before his plays were collected. However the people of his day regarded him, it is safe to say that they could not have had any conception of the importance of the work he was doing. They were doubtless satisfied with him. It was a great age for romances and story-telling, and he told stories, old in new dresses, but he was also careful to use contemporary life, which his hearers understood.
It is not to his own age, but to those following, and especially to our own time, that we are to look for the shaping and enormous influence upon human life of the genius of this poet. And it is measured not by the libraries of comments that his works have called forth, but by the prevalence of the language and thought of his poetry in all subsequent literature, and by its entrance into the current of common thought and speech. It may be safely said that the English-speaking world and almost every individual of it are different from what they would have been if Shakespeare had never lived. Of all the forces that have survived out of his creative time, he is one of the chief.