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A Glimpse of Shakespeare

From The Wakeforest Student. In The Timon Plays by Joseph Quincy Adams. Urbana, Ill.

During the autumn of 1601 Shakespeare and his fellow-players closed up their London theater, the Globe, and traveled in the country. There is evidence that in October they visited Aberdeen, and a short time later, Cambridge. That traveling of this kind was not held in high esteem, and was resorted to by theatrical troupes only in cases of necessity, will be obvious from the following quotations:
A Player, riding with his fellows (in a year of Peregrinations) up and downe the counties, resolved to be merry, though they got little money. - Jests to Make You Merry.

Playhouses stand (like Taverns that have cast out their masters), the doors locked up, the flags (like their bushes) taken down; or rather like houses lately infected [with the plague], from whence the affrighted dwellers are fled, in hope to live better in the country. - Work for Armorours.

They are no more called Ranck-riders, but Strowlers, a proper name given to Country players that (without socks) trotte from towne to towne upon the harde hoofe. - Lanthom and Candlelight.

The Players * * * making fools of the poor country people, in driving them like flocks of geese to sit cackling in an old barn, and to swallow down those playes for new which here [in London] every punk and her squire can rand out by heart. - Jests to Make You Merry.
Probably, however, not all the plays that Shakespeare and his troupe forced down the throats of the "country people" were old; for it seems that one of the plays acted on this trip was the recently composed Hamlet. On the title-page of the first quarto (entered in the Stationers' Register July, 1602) appears the statement: "As it hath been diverse times acted by his Highness servants in the city of London: as also in the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford, and elsewhere."

Curiously enough in Hamlet (II.ii) Shakespeare goes out of his way to discuss at some length the traveling of the troupe of actors that visits Elsinore; and the inference that in this discussion he has in mind the traveling of his own troupe is well-nigh irresistible.
Hamlet. What players are they?
Rosencrantz. Even those you were wont to take delight in, the tragedians of the city.
Hamlet. How chances it they travel? Their residence, both in reputation and profit, was better both ways.
Before we allow Rosencrantz to answer this question, let us glance for a moment at the current happenings in the theatrical world of London. In 1600 a troupe of child actors (boy singers in the Queen's chapel) began to act with great success at the Blackfriars private playhouse. In Jacke Drums Entertainement (written in 1600) occurs this passage:
Sir Ed. I saw the Children of Powles last night,
And troth they pleas'd me prettie, prettie well.
The Apes in time will doe it handsomely.
Plan. Ifaith, I like the audience that frequenteth there
With much applause. A man shall not be chokte
With the stench of Garlick, nor be pasted
To the barmie Jacket of a Beer-brewer.
Bra. Ju. 'Tis a good gentle audience, and I hope the boies
Will come one day into the Court of requests.
The boys did come into request; indeed, they came into such request that the older playhouses suffered greatly. No less a person than Ben Jonson was engaged to write for the children; and the fashionable audiences that formerly patronized the public theaters, now turned to the private playhouse of Blackfriars.

These facts were well known to every person in Shakespeare's audience; let us bear them in mind in listening to Rosencrantz's reply to Hamlet's question, "How chances it they travel?"
Ros. I think their inhibition [i.e., the closing up of their theater] comes by the means of the late innovation.
What was this "innovation"? If the reader has not already guessed the answer, he will discover it, I think, in the rest of the passage:
Ham. Do they hold the same estimation they did when I was in the city? are they so followed?
Ros. No indeed they are not.
Ham. How comes it? do they grow rusty?
Ros. Nay, their endeavour keeps in the wonted pace: but there is, sir, an aery [i. e., nest] of children, little eyases [i.e., little eagles], that cry out on the top of questions, and are most tyrannically clapped for't: these are now the fashion.
This, then, is the "innovation" that caused Shakespeare's troupe to close its playhouse and "take to the hoofe." The reading of the first quarto differs somewhat from the reading of the folio given above; in the first quarto Hamlet's question is answered thus:
Yfaith my Lord, noveltie carries it away,
For the principall publicke audience that
Came to them, are turned to private plays
And to the humour of children.
Here we have a frank statement from Shakespeare that the success of the boy actors had robbed the Globe of its audiences. Now if the children had attained this success through nothing else than the excellence of their acting and the attractiveness of their plays, Shakespeare could not with any grace make complaint. If, however, the children had used unfair means - that is, had heaped upon their grown-up rivals abuse calculated to injure in a social and in a business way the actors at the Globe - then Shakespeare had a perfect right to complain. He does complain; and though he does so good-naturedly he states his complaint clearly.

Before we examine Shakespeare's complaint let us see what the boys were doing in 1601. Jonson had just written for them two comedies, Cynthia's Revels and The Poetaster. In both of these plays his attitude towards the public actors was condescending and his language abusive. He termed the grown-up actors "common players" ("a tragedy of yours coming forth for the common players." - Poetaster, p. 211); and their playhouses, "common stages" ("servile imitation from common stages." - Cynthia's Revels, p. 147; "will press forth on common stages." - Idem, p. 176). This term, "common players," was offensive because of the well-known legal statute that classified "common players" [i. e. strolling players] with "Eogues, Vagabonds and Sturdy Beggars." And the fact that Shakespeare's troupe had been traveling would make the term especially appropriate to the Globe players.

Furthermore, in The Poetaster Jonson represented the Globe players in the character of Histrio, a cheap, thread-bare actor; and at this character he directed almost unlimited abuse. I give below a few examples of the way in which he attacked Histrio and the other public actors.
These players are an idle generation, and do much harm in a state, corrupt young gentry very much (p. 212).
They are grown licentious, the rogues; - libertines, flat libertines! (p. 212).
I am not known unto the open stage, Nor do I traffic in their theaters (p. 212).
2 Pyr. 'Tis a player, sir.
Tuc. A player! call him, call the lousy slave hither; what, will he sail by, and not once strike, or vail to a man of war? ha! - Do you hear, you player, rogue, stalker, come back here * * * you slave * * * you rascal * * * you two-penny tear-mouth * * * you stinkard * * * rogue * * * slave * * * gulch * * * Howleglas * * * you presumptuous varlet * * * vermin * * * etc. (pp. 230-1).
Go to, then, raise, recover, do; suffer him not to droop in prospect of a player, a rogue, a stager, (p. 232.)
Tuc. I would fain come with my cockatrice one day, and see a play, if I knew when there were a good bawdy one; but they say you have nothing but Humours [i.e., "the comedy of humours," of which Jonson was the recognized master], Revels [i. e., Jonson's Cynthia's Revels], and Satires [Jonson termed The Poetaster a "Comical Satyre"].
Hist. No, I assure you, captain, not we. They lare on the other side of Tyber [i.e., across the Thames at the Blackfriars]: we [on the Bankside] have as much ribaldry in our plays as can be, as you would wish, captain: all the sinners in the suburbs [i. e., prostitutes, who infested the Bankside] come and applaud our actions daily.
Tuc. I hear you'll bring me o' the stage there; you'll play me, they say [referring to The Satiromastix, then being written for performance at the Globe] ; I shall be presented by a sort of copper-laced scoundrels of you: life of Pluto! an you stage me, stinkard, your mansions shall sweat for't, your tabernacles, varlets, your Globes, and your Triumphs, (p. 232.)
I have stood up and defended you, I, to gentlemen, when you have been said to prey upon puisnes [i. e., minors], and honest citizens for socks or buskins; or when they have called you usurers or brokers, or said you were able to help to a piece of flesh - I have sworn I did not think so, nor that you were the common retreats for punks decayed in their practice, (p. 234.)
Tucca [to Histrio]. Bascal, to him, cherish his muse, go; thou hast forty - forty shillings, I mean, stinkard; give him in earnest, do, he shall write for thee, slave! If he pen for thee once, thou shalt not need to travel with thy pumps full of gravel any more, after a blind jade and a hamper, and stalk upon boards and barrel heads, to an old cracked trumpet, (p. 231.)
Let us now return to Hamlet and Rosencrantz.
Ham. Do they [i.e., Globe players] hold the same estimation they did when I was in the city? are they so followed?
Ros. No indeed they are not.
Ham. How comes it? do they grow rusty?
Ros. Nay, their endeavour keeps in the wonted pace: but there is sir, an aery of children, little eyases, that cry out on the top of question, and are most tyrannically clapped for't: these are now the fashion, and so berattle [i.e., abuse] the common stages - so they call them - that many wearing rapiers [i.e., gallants] are afraid of goose-quills [i.e., the satire of the boys' playwrights] and dare scarce come thither [i.e., to the public playhouses].
Ham. What, are they children? who maintains 'em? how are they escoted [i. e., paid]? Will they pursue the quality [i. e., the profession of acting] no longer than they can sing [i. e., before their voices change]? will they not say afterwards, if they should grow to common players - as it is most like, if their means are no better - their writers do them wrong to make them exclaim against their own succession [i.e., the profession of public actor, to which they must shortly succeed].
It is obvious that here Shakespeare had directly in mind the performance by the children of Jonson's abusive plays. In The Poetaster, as I have shown, Jonson "berattled the common stages" - so he called them - with vigor, and made the "little eyases * * * exclaim against their succession." We may readily suppose that such abuse from the great Jonson, uttered by a troupe "now the fashion," would serve to "make many wearing rapiers * * * dare scarce" go to the Bankside. That such was the case Jonson himself tells us.
Histrio [i.e., Globe players]. O, it will get us a huge deal of money, captain, and we have need on't; for this winter has made us all poorer than so many starved snakes: nobody comes at us, not a gentleman, nor a.... (p. 235.)
This agrees exactly with what Shakespeare tells us:
Ham. Do they hold the same estimation they did when I was in the city? Are they so followed?
Ros. No indeed they are not.
This passage, if it has been correctly interpreted, is one of the most interesting in the plays, for it is one of the rare places in which the great dramatist steps from behind the curtain and speaks in his own character. The wholesome superiority over enemies, and the good-nature in spite of extreme provocation, give us a glimpse of Shakespeare the man that makes us wish we knew him better.
How to cite this article:
Adams, Joseph Quincy. The Wake Forest Student. In The Timon Plays. Reprinted from The Journal of English and Germanic Philosophy. Vol X. Urbana: 1910. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2011. (date when you accessed the information) < >.

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