1902 Encyclopedia > William Shakespeare > New National School of Dramatic Art in England

William Shakespeare
(Part 37)


New National School of Dramatic Art in England

The dramatic conditions of a national theatre were indeed, at the outset of Shakespeare's career, more complete, or rather in a more advanced state of development, than the playhouses themselves or their stage accessories. If Shakespeare was fortunate in entering on his London work amidst the full tide of awakened patriotism and public spirit, he was equally fortunate in finding ready to his hand the forms of art in which the rich and complex life of the time could be adequately expressed.

During the decade in which Shakespeare left Stratford the play-wright's art had undergone changes so important as to constitute a revolution in the form and spirit of the national drama. For twenty years after the accession of Elizabeth the two roots whence the English drama sprung -- the academic or classical, and the popular, developed spontaneously in the line of mysteries, moralities, and interludes -- continued to exist apart, and to produce their accustomed fruit independently of each other.

The popular drama, it is true, becoming more secular and realistic, enlarged its area by collecting its materials from all sources, -- from novels, tales, ballads, and histories, as well as from fairy mythology, local superstitions, and folk-lore. But the incongruous materials were, for the most part, handled in a crude and semi-barbarous way, with just sufficient art to satisfy the cravings and clamours of unlettered audiences.

The academic plays, on the other hand, were written by scholars for courtly and cultivated circles, were acted at the universities, the Inns of Court, and at special public ceremonials, and followed for the most part the recognized and restricted rules of the classic drama.

But in the third decade of Elizabeth's reign another dramatic school arose intermediate between the two elder ones, which sought to combine in a newer and higher form the best elements of both. The main impulse guiding the efforts of the new school may be traced indirectly to a classical source. It was due, not immediately to the masterpieces of Greece and Rome, but to the form which classical art had assumed in the contemporary drama of Italy, France, and Spain, especially of Italy, which was that earliest developed and best known to the new school of poets and dramatists. This southern drama, while academic in its leading features, had nevertheless modern elements blended with the ancient form.

As the Italian epics, following in the main the older examples, were still charged with romantic and realistic elements unknown to the classical epic, so the Italian drama, constructed on the lines of Seneca and Plautus, blended with the severer form essentially romantic features. With the choice of heroic subjects, the orderly development of the plot, the free use of the chorus, the observance of the unities, and constant substitution of narrative for action were united the vivid colouring of poetic fancy and diction, and the use of materials and incidents derived from recent history and contemporary life.

The influence of the Italian drama on the new school of English play-wrights was, however, very much restricted to points of style and diction of rhetorical and poetical effect. It helped to produce among them the sense of artistic treatment, the conscious effort after higher and more elaborate forms and vehicles of imaginative and passionate expression.

For the rest, the rising English drama, in spite of the efforts made by academic critics to narrow its range and limit its interests, retained and thoroughly vindicated its freedom and independence. The central characteristics of the new school are sufficiently explained by the fact that its leading representatives were all of them scholars and poets, living by their wits and gaining a somewhat precarious livelihood amidst the stir and bustle, the temptations and excitement, of concentrated London life. The distinctive note of their work is the reflex of their position as academic scholars working under poetic and popular impulses for the public theatres.

The new and striking combination in their dramas of elements hitherto wholly separated is but the natural result of their attainments and literary activities. From their university training and knowledge of the ancients they would be familiar with the technical requirements of dramatic art, the deliberate handling of plot, incident, and character, and the due subordination of parts essential for producing the effect of an artistic whole.

Their imaginative and emotional sensibility, stimulated by their studies in Southern literature, would naturally prompt them to combine features of poetic beauty and rhetorical finish with the evolution of character and action; while from the popular native drama they derived the breadth of sympathy, sense of humour, and vivid contact with actual life which gave reality and power to their representations.

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