1902 Encyclopedia > William Shakespeare > Shakespeare's Childhood: Interludes and Stage Plays

William Shakespeare
(Part 24)


Interludes and Stage Plays

But the moralities, interludes, and stage-plays proper afforded the most direct and varied dramatic instruction available in Shakespeare's youth. The earliest popular forerun of the drama was the mystery or miracle play, dealing in the main with Biblical subjects; and, Coventry being one of the chief centres for the production and exhibition of the mysteries, Shakespeare had ample opportunities of becoming well acquainted with them.

Some of the acting companies formed from the numerous trade guilds of the "shire-town" were moreover in the habit of visiting the neighbouring cities for the purpose of exhibiting their plays and pageants. There is evidence of their having performed at Leicester and Bristol in Shakespeare's youth, and on returning from the latter city they would most probably have stopped at Stratford and given some performances there. And in any case, Coventry being so near to Stratford, the fame of the multiplied pageants presented during the holiday weeks of Easter and Whitsuntide, and especially of the brilliant concourse that came to witness the grand series of Corpus Christi plays, would have early attracted the young poet; and he must have become familiar with the precincts of the Grey Friars at Coventry during the celebration of these great ecclesiastical festivals.

The indirect evidence of this is supplied by Shakespeare's references to the well-known characters of the mysteries, such as Herod and Pilate, Cain and Judas, Termagaunt with his turbaned Turks and infidels, black-burning souls, grim and gaping hell, and the like.

The 'moralities' and interludes that gradually took the place of the Biblical mysteries were also acted by companies of strolling players over a wide area in the towns and cities of the Midland and western counties. Malone gives from an eye-witness a detailed and graphic account of the public acting of one of these companies at Gloucester in 1569, the year during which the poet's father as high-bailiff had brought the stage-players into Stratford and inaugurated a series of performances in the guild hall. The play acted at Gloucester was The Cradle of Security, one of the most striking and popular of the early moralities or interludes.

Willis, the writer of the account, was just Shakespeare's age, having been born in 1564. As a boy of five years old be had been taken by his father to see the play, and, standing between his father's knees, watched the whole performance with such intense interest that, writing about it seventy years afterwards, he says, "the subject took such an impression upon me that when I came afterwards towards man's estate it was as fresh in my memory as if I had seen it newly enacted." In proof of this he gives a clear and detailed outline of the play.

Willis was evidently a man of no special gifts, and, if the witnessing a play when a child could produce on an ordinary mind so memorable an impression, we may imagine what the effect would be on the mind of the marvelous boy who, about the same time and under like circumstances, was taken by his father to see the performances at Stratford. The com-pany that first visited Stratford being a distinguished one, their plays were probably of a higher type and better acted than The Cradle of Security at Gloucester; and their effect on the young poet would be the more vivid and stimulating from the keener sensibilities and latent dramatic power to which in his case they appealed These early impressions would be renewed and deepened with the boy's advancing years.

During the decade on Shakespeare's active youth from 1573 to 1584 the best companies in the kingdom constantly visited Stratford and he would thus have the advantage of seeing the finest dramas yet produced acted by the best players of the time This would be for him a rich and fruitful experience of the flexible and impressive form of art which at a moment of exuberant national vitality was attracting to itself the scattered forces of poetic genius, and soon gained a position of unrivalled supremacy.

As he watched the performance in turn of the various kinds of interlude, comedy, and pastoral, of chronicle and biographical plays, of historical domestic, or realistic tragedy, he would gain in instructive insight into the wide scope and vast resources of the rising drama. And he would have opportunities of acquiring some knowledge of stage business, management, and effects, as well as of dramatic form.

Amongst the companies that visited Stratford were those of the powerful local earls of Leicester, Warwick, and Worcester, whose members were largely recruited from the Midland counties The earl of Leicester's company, the most eminent of all included several Warwickshire men, while some of the leading members, like the elder Burbage, appear to have been natives of Stratford or the immediate neighbourhood.

And the poet's father being, as we have seen, so great a friend of the players, and during his most prosperous years in constant communication with them, his son would have every facility for studying their art. Curiosity and interest alike would prompt him to find out all he could about the use of the stage "books," the distribution of the parts, the cues and exits, the management of voice and gesture, the graduated passion and controlled power of the leading actors in the play, the just subordination of the less important parts, and the measure and finish of each on which the success of the whole so largely depended.

It is not improbable, too, that in connexion with some of the companies Shakespeare may have tried his band both as poet and actor even before leaving Stratford. His poetical powers could hardly be unknown, and he may have written scenes and passages to fill out an imperfect or complete a defective play; and from his known interest in their work he may have been pressed by the actors to appear in some secondary part on the stage. In any case he would be acquainted with some of the leading players in the best companies, so that when he decided to adopt their profession he might reasonably hope on going to London to find occupation amongst them without much difficulty or delay.

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