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FROM THE EARLIEST NOTICE OF SHAKESPEARE IN
LONDON TILL HIS PURCHASE OF NEW PLACE.
THE first London play-house dates from 1576, in which sear James Burbage and his fellows opened the Blackfriars theatre, so named from a monastery that had formerly stood on or near the same ground. Hitherto the several bands of players had made use of churches, halls, temporary erections in the streets or the inn-yards, stages being set up, and the spectators standing below, or occupying galleries about the open space. In 1577, two other play-houses were in operation, called The Curtain and The Theatre. The next year, a puritanical preacher named Stockwood published a sermon, in which he alleged that there were “eight ordinary places” in and near London for dramatic performances, the united profits of which were not less than £2000 a year. About the same time, another preacher named White, equally set against the stage, described the play-houses then in operation as “sumptuous theatres." As to the number of actors performing in and about the metropolis, a man calling himself “a soldier” wrote to Walsingham in January, 1586, telling him that “ every day in the week the players bills are set up in sundry places of the city,” and that not less than two hundred persons, thus retained and employed, strutted in their silks about the streets.
The Blackfriars and some of the others were without the limits of the corporation, in what were called “ the liberties.” The Mayor and Aldermen of London were from the first decidedly hostile to all such establishments, and did their best to exclude them from the city and liberties; but the Court and many of the chief nobility favoured them
Many complaints were alleged against them, many efforts niade to restrain and obstruct them; for which, no doubt, they gave but too much occasion, by venting satire and buffoonery in “ matters of state and religion ;” and, from the special part the Puritans had taken against them, it was natural that they should in turn give the Puritans special prove ocation.
We have seen that the company of Burbage and his fellows, known as the Earl of Leicester's players, held at this time the privileges of a patent under the great seal. In 1587, they took the title of “the Lord Chamberlain's Servants.” It appears that in 1589 their interests were somehow threatened, or they thought them threatened, on account of offences done by other companies ; two others, those of the Lord Admiral and the Lord Strange, having been summoned before the Lord Mayor, and ordered to desist from all performances. Accordingly, in November of that year, they sent to the Privy Council a certificate of their good conduct, in which sixteen persons by name, styling themselves “her Majesty's poor players,” and “sharers in the Blackfriars playhouse,” allege that they “have never given cause of displeasure, in that they have brought into their plays matters of state and religion, unfit to be handled by them, or to be presented before lewd spectators ; neither hath any complaint in that kind ever been preferred against them, or any of them.” This remarkable document passed into the hands of Lord Ellesmere, then attorney-general, and was lately discovered among his papers, by Mr. Collier."
1 We subjoin the paper in full: “These are to certifie your right Honorable Lordships, that her Majesties poore Playeres, James Burbadge, Richard Burbadge, John Laneham, Thomas Greene. Robert Wilson, John Taylor, Anth. Wadeson, Thomas Pope, George Peele. Augustine Phillipps, Nicholas Towley William Shakespeare, William Kempe, William Johnson, Baptiste Goodale, and Robert Armyn, being all of them sharers in the Blacke Fryers playehouse, have never given cause of displeasure, in that they have broughi into their playes maters of state and Religion, unfili 10 be haudled by them, or to be presented before
The Burbage establishment seems to have been conducted on rather liberal, not to say democratic, principles ; all who were of any note connected with it being admitted as joint sharers in the profits. In this list of sixteen sharers, the name of William Shakespeare stands the twelfth; and among them are four others, the two Burbages, Greene, and Tooley, who were from the same county with him. It is nct to be supposed that this list includes all who belonged in any way to the concern, but only such as held the rank of sharers : others, no doubt, who played inferior parts, were retained as hired men or apprentices, such as Snakespeare had probably been at his first entrance among them.
At the date of this certificate, the Poet was in his twentysixth year, and had probably been in the theatre not far from three years. Whether at this time he recommended himself to advancement more by his acting or his writing, is a question about which we can only speculate. In tragic parts, none of them could shine beside the younger Burbage; while Greene, and still more Kempe, another of the sharers, left small chance of distinction in comic parts. Aubrey tells us that Shakespeare “was a handsome, well-shap'd man ;* which is no slight matter on the stage ; and adds, — “He did act exceedingly well.” Rowe “could never meet with any further account of him this way, than that the top of his performance was the Ghost in his own Hamlet.” But this part, to be fairly dealt with, requires an actor of no ordinary powers ; and, as Burbage is known to have played the Prince, we may presume that “the buried majesty of Denmark" would not be cast upon very inferior hands. Campbell the poet justly observes of the Ghost, that “though its move
lew de spectators; neither hath anie complaynte in that kinde ever bene preferrde against them, or anie of them. Wherefore, they trust most humblie in your Lordships consideration of their former good behaviour, being at all tymes readie and willing to yeelde obedience to any command whatsoever your Lordships in your wisdome may thinke in such case meete, &c.
« Nov. 1589."
ments are few, they must be awfully graceful ; and the spectral voice, though subdued and half-monotonous, must be solemn and full of feeling. It gives us an imposing idea of Shakespeare's stature and mien, to conceive him in this part."
That he was master of the theory of acting, and could tell, none better, how the thing ought to be done, is evident encugh from Hamlet's instructions to the players. But it novise follows, that he could perform his own instructions. Though it is traveling somewhat out of the calendar, we may as well finish this subject here. There is strong reason for believing that the Poet figured a good deal in images of royalty. Davies, in his Scourge of Folly, 1611, has the following:
“ To our EnglISH TERENCE, MR. Will. SHAKESPEARE.
“ Some say, good Will, which I in sport do sing,
Hadst thou not play'd soine kingly parts in sport,
This is as good authority as need be asked, as to the line of characters in which the Poet was known. And there is a tradition, that Queen Elizabeth was in the theatre one evening when he was playing the part of a king; and in crossing the stage she moved politely to him without the honour being duly recognised. With a view to ascertain whether the omission were accidental, or whether he were resolved not to lose for an instant the character he sustained, she then passed the stage again near him, and dropped her glove, which he immediately took up and added to a speech just then finished these lines, “so aptly delivered, that they seemed to belong to it," —
“ And though now bent on this bigh embassy,
Yet stoop we to take up our cousin's glove.” He then retired from the stage, and presented the glove to her Majesty, who was greatly pleased with his conduct, and complimented him upon it.
We do not hold the story to be worth much ; but it may be taken with other things as indicating that the Poet was somewhat celebrated in connection with the royalties of the stage, at a time when something dignified and handsome, not to say noble and majestic, was required in such parts by public sentiment. Oldys relates another story which, if it may be credited, infers him to have sustained the part of the “good old man,” Adam, in As You Like It. But his histrionic career, even had he been another Burbage, were bat a trifle in comparison with what he did as a dramatist, and is here dwelt upon merely because it seemed necessary to say something about it..
Among his fellow-sharers in 1589 is found the name of George Peele, who was considerably his senior in years, and was already a practised and popular play-wright. Peele was
2 Capell says, in 1779, that this “traditional story was current some years ago about Stratford.” Oldys gives it as follows. “One of Shakespeare's younger brothers, who lived to a good old age, even some years, as I compule, after the restoration of King Charles II., would in his younger days come to London to visit his brother Will, as he called him, and he a specialor of him as an actor in one of his own plays. This custom, as his brother's fame cnlarged, and his dramatick entertainments grew the greatest support of our principal if not of all our theatres, he continued, it seems, so long after his brother's death as even to the latter end of his own life. The curiosity at this time of the most noted act. ors to learn something from him of his brother, made them greedily inquisitive into every little circumstance, more especially in his dramatick character, which he could relate of him. But he, it seems, was so stricken in years, and possibly his memory so weakened by infirmities, thai he could give them but little light into their enquiries; and all that could be recollected from him of his brother Will in that station, was the faint, general, and almost lost ideas he had of having once seen him act a part in one of bis own comedies ; wherein, being to personate a decrepit old maa, he wore a long heard, and appeared so weak and drooping, and unable to walk, that he was forced to be supported and carried by another person to a table, at which he was seated among some company who were eating, and one of them sung a song.” This story, if there be any truth in it, must refer to the Poet's brother Gilbert, bis other two brothers, Richard and Edmund, having died Cong before.