How, then, did English literature, so negligible in the long drought between Chaucer and Spenser, rise to Shakespeare? Because of wealth growing and spreading; because of a long and fruitful peace, a stimulating and triumphant war; because of foreign literature and travel broadening the English mind. Plautus and Terence were teaching England the art of comedy, Seneca the technique of tragedy; Italian actors played in England (1577f.); a thousand experiments were made; between 1592 and 1642 England saw 435 comedies performed. Farces and interludes developed into comedies; mysteries and moralities gave way to secular tragic dramas as the once sacred myths lost their hold on belief. In 1553 Nicholas Udall produced in Ralph Roister Doister the first English comedy in classic form. In 1561 the lawyers of the Inner Temple staged there Gorboduc, the first English tragedy in classic form.
For a time that form, descended from Rome, seemed destined to mold the Elizabethan drama. University scholars like Harvey, lawyer-poets like George Gascoyne, men of classical learning like Sidney, pleaded for the observance of the three “unities” in a play: that there should be only one action or plot, and that this should occur in one place, and represent no longer time than a day. These unities, so far as we know, were first formulated by Lodovico Castelvetro (1570) in a commentary on Aristotle’s Poetics. Aristotle himself requires only unity of action; he recommends that the action should fall “within a single revolution of the sun”; and he adds what might be called unity of mood—that comedy, as “a representation of inferior people,” should not be mingled with tragedy, as “a representation of heroic action.”34 Sidney’s Defence of Poesy took the doctrine of the dramatic unities from Castelvetro and applied it with rigor and yet good humor to Elizabethan plays, in whose highhanded geography
you shall have Asia of the one side, and Africa of the other, and so many other under kingdoms, that the player, when he comes in, must ever begin with telling where he is…. Now of time they are much more liberal; for ordinary it is, that two young princes fall in love; after many traverses she is got with child; delivered of a fair boy; he … groweth a man, falleth in love, and is ready to get another child; and all this in two hours’ space.35
France followed the classic rules and produced Racine; England rejected them, gave its tragic drama romantic freedom and naturalistic scope, and produced Shakespeare. The ideal of the French Renaissance was order, reason, proportion, propriety; the ideal of Renaissance England was liberty, will, humor, life. The Elizabethan audience, composed of lordlings, middlings, and groundlings, had to have a rich and varied diet; it demanded action, not lengthy reports of hidden actions; it had a belly for laughter and did not mind gravediggers bandying philosophies with a prince; it had an untamed imagination that could leap from place to place and cross a continent at the bidding of a sign or the hint of a line. The Elizabethan drama expressed the Elizabethan English, not the Periclean Greeks or the Bourbon French; hence it became the national art, while arts that followed alien models took no English root.
The English drama had to fight another battle before it could proceed to Marlowe and Shakespeare. The nascent Puritan movement rejected the Elizabethan stage as a home of paganism, obscenity, and profanity; it denounced the presence of women and prostitutes in the audience, and the propinquity of brothels to the theaters. In 1577 John Northbrooke published a furious diatribe against “dicing, dancing, plays, and interludes,” writing:
I am persuaded that Satan hath not a more speedy way and fitter school to work and teach his desire, to bring men and women into his snare of concupiscence and filthy lusts of wicked whoredom, than those plays and theaters are; and therefore it is necessary that those places and players should be forbidden and dissolved, and put down by authority, as the brothels and stews are.36
Stephen Gosson’s Schoole of Abuse was relatively moderate, and acknowledged some plays and actors to be “without rebuke”; but when Lodge replied to him Gosson abandoned all distinctions, and in Players Confuted in Five Actions he described plays as “the food of iniquity, riot, and adultery,” and actors as “masters of vice, teachers of wantonness.”37 Critics saw in the comedies demoralizing pictures of vice and rascality, and in tragedies stimulating examples of murder, treachery, and rebellion.38 In the earlier years of Elizabeth’s reign, Sunday was the usual day for plays; trumpets announced them just as church bells called the people to afternoon prayer, and clergymen were dismayed to find their congregations skipping services to crowd the theater. “Will not a filthy play, with the blast of a trumpet,” asked a preacher, “sooner call thither a thousand than an hour’s tolling of a bell bring to a sermon a hundred?”39 And North-brooke proceeded: “If you will learn … to deceive your husbands, or husbands their wives, how to play the harlot … how to flatter, lie … murder … blaspheme, sing filthy songs … shall you not learn, at such interludes, to practice them?”40
The dramatists replied with pamphlets, and by making fun of Puritans in the plays, as of Malvolio in Twelfth Night. “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous,” asks Sir Toby Belch of the clown in that play, “there shall be no more cakes and ale?” And the clown replies, “Yes, by Saint Anne, and ginger shall be hot i’ the mouth, too!”41 The playwrights, even Shakespeare, continued to salt their tales with violence, rage, incest, adultery, and prostitution; one scene in Shakespeare’s Pericles shows a room in a brothel, whose general manager complains that his personnel “with continual action are even as good as rotten.”42
The city authorities of London—some of them Puritans—thought the Puritans had the better of the argument. In 1574 the Common Council forbade the performance of plays except after censorship and licensing; hence Shakespeare’s line about “art made tongue-tied by authority.”43 Fortunately, Elizabeth and her Privy Council enjoyed the drama; several lords had companies of players, and under this royal protection and a lax censorship six troupes were licensed to produce plays in the city.
Before 1576 theatrical performances had taken place chiefly on temporary platforms in the courtyards of inns, but in that year James Burbage built the first permanent theater in England. It was called simply The Theatre. To escape the jurisdiction of the London magistrates, it was located just outside the City proper, in the suburb of Shoreditch. Soon other theaters rose: the Curtain (1577?), the Blackfriars (1596), the Fortune (1599). In this last year Richard and Cuthbert Burbage demolished their father’s Theatre and raised the famous Globe in Southwark, just across the Thames. It was octagonal in outer form but probably circular within; hence Shakespeare could call it “this wooden O.”44 All the London theaters were of wood before 1623. Most of them were large amphitheaters, seating some two thousand spectators in several tiers of encircling galleries, and allowing another thousand to stand in the “yard” around the stage; these latter were the “groundlings,” whom Hamlet rebuked for their “dumb-shows and noise.”45 In 1599 the price of standing room was one penny, of a seat in the galleries two or three pence; a little more bought a seat on the stage. This was a spacious platform projecting from one wall into the center of the yard. At its rear was a “tiring,” or attiring, room, where the actors donned their costumes and the “stage-keeper” managed the properties. These included tombs, skulls, box trees, rosebushes, caskets, curtains, caldrons, ladders, weapons, implements, phials of blood, and some severed heads. Machines could let gods and goddesses down from heaven or raise ghosts or witches up through the floor; “rain” could be produced at the pull of a string, and “double girts” could hang the sun in the sky.46 These properties had to make up for the absence of scenery; the open and uncurtained stage forbade any rapid change of the setting. In recompense the action transpired in the very midst of the audience, which could almost feel itself a part of the event.
The audience was no minor portion of the spectacle. Caterers sold tobacco, apples, nuts, and pamphlets to the spectators; in later days, if we may believe the Puritan William Prynne, the women were offered pipes.47 Women came to the plays in considerable number, not deterred by pulpit warnings that such mingling was an invitation to seduction. Sometimes—the class war interrupting the drama—the groundlings threw the leavings of their collations at the dandies on the stage. To understand an Elizabethan play we must remember that audience: the sentiment that welcomed a love story, the hearty humor that wanted clowns with kings, the swagger that relished rhetoric, the rough vitality that enjoyed scenes of violence—and the nearness of the three-sided stage, inviting soliloquies and asides.
Actors abounded. Strolling players might be seen in almost any town on festival days, performing in the village square, the tavern courtyard, a barn or a palace, and at wakes. There were in Shakespeare’s day no actresses; female parts were played by boys, and sometimes an Elizabethan audience could see a boy representing a woman disguised as a boy or a man. In the aristocratic public schools the students presented dramas as part of their training. Companies of such boy actors competed with adult troupes by giving performances in private theaters for public and paying audiences. Shakespeare complained of this competition,48 and after 1626 it ceased.
To avoid being classed as vagrants, the adult actors were organized in companies under the patronage and protection of opulent nobles—Leicester, Sussex, Warwick, Oxford, Essex. The Lord Admiral had a company; so did the Lord Chamberlain. The actors were paid by their patrons only for performances in the baronial halls; for the rest they lived precariously on the earnings of their shares in their company. Shares were unevenly divided; the manager took a third, and the leading actors received the lion’s share of the rest. Richard Burbage, the most famous of these “stars,” left property bringing £300 a year; his rival, Edward Alleyn, founded and endowed Dulwich College, London. The celebrities of the stage were rewarded also with public idolatry and a succession of mistresses. In his diary for March 1602, John Manningham tells a famous story:
Once upon a time, when Burbage played Richard III, there was a citizen gone so far in liking with him that before she went from the play she appointed him to come that night unto her by the name of Richard III. Shakespeare, overhearing their conclusion, went before, was entertained and at his game before Burbage came. Then, message being brought that Richard III was at the door, Shakespeare caused return to be made that William the Conqueror was before Richard III.49