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Shakespeare Part of a Dramatic Period. ---- Shakespeare lived in the midst of one of the world's few great dramatic periods — a period equaled only, if equaled at all, by the greatest epoch in the drama of Greece. The Elizabethan drama was more than a national amusement. More fully than any other form of literary or artistic expression, it interpreted and satisfied the craving of the time for vigorous life and action. The theater was then, as in classic Greece, a national force, and a means of national education. An immense popular impulse was back of the Elizabethan dramatist. The wooden playhouses were daily filled with turbulent crowds, and scores of playwrights were busy supplying the insatiable public with countless dramas. Shakespeare was sustained by a hearty, if not always a discriminating, appreciation; he was stimulated by the fellowship, or rivalry, of a host of competitors. The number of readers was still small; there were few bookbuyers outside of a little coterie of noblemen and scholars. Under these conditions it was impossible to make a living by writing unless one wrote for the stage. It was the dramatist who enjoyed the public patronage, the dramatist who received the most substantial rewards; and an almost irresistible current impelled young literary aspirants, the men of genius and the men of talent, to choose the dramatic form.

Preparation for the Elizabethan Drama. - At first sight, this dramatic activity may seem to have sprung suddenly into being in answer to a new popular demand. The first regular tragedy was produced about the time of Shakespeare's birth, and he was twelve years old before the first theater was erected in England (1576).

But the passion for life and action did not create the Elizabethan drama out of nothing; it rather transformed

and adapted to its use a drama which had for centuries been an important part of the nation's life. This drama, brought into England some time after the Norman Conquest, had its origin in the Church; and as the Church

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services were in Latin, the drama was at first in Latin also. For a long time it dealt exclusively with religious and moral themes, and had grown out of the need which the Church felt for some means of popular religious instruction. It was not regular drama, but existed at

first as part of the Church service on special occasions. At Easter, for example, during the singing of the mass, four priests, representing the angel and the three women bearing spices, acted simply and reverently the scene at the Holy Sepulcher. Later, other stories from the Bible and legends of the saints were represented in short scenes or plays, independently of the Church service. These gradually passed out of the hands of the clergy, and came to be acted (about 1350) in English, the language of the people, by members of the craft guilds, usually on movable platforms drawn through the streets of the larger towns. These plays were called Miracle Plays, because they dealt with wonderful or supernatural subjects. In some towns, as York and Chester, a complete cycle of such plays was given, representing the Bible story in a continuous series from the Creation or the Fall of Satan to Doomsday. Each guild presented a scene, — the shipwrights, for example, the building of the ark; the fishers and mariners, Noah and the flood. The platform on which the players acted was called a pageant, and resembled a huge box on wheels, divided into two stories or tiers. The lower story was commonly enclosed by curtains and was used as a dressing-room; the upper, which was open at the sides, was the stage. The spectators assembled in groups at various places in the town, at the street corners, the town-cross, or the gates, and the pageants were drawn from group to group. Each pageant performed only one play in the series, and as one pageant followed another in regular succession, each group of spectators would, by remaining at the same spot, see the whole series of plays. Sometimes scaffolds were used instead of the movable stages. Naturally this drama, which was popular in all parts of England

especially during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries,

was very real, to actors and spectators alike. It was the expression of their most vital beliefs; and yet, though its purpose and subject were religious, it contained certain purely comic and essentially human elements which led to the later development of the non-religious drama.

The Moral Play or Morality. — Beside the Miracle play, there was another kind of play with a religious purpose, the Moral Play or Morality. Its object was to teach a moral lesson by showing in the form of an allegory every man's lifelong struggle with the various temptations which are the common enemies of mankind. Instead of telling the story of the Bible in whole or in part, the Moral Play taught the difference between abstract right and wrong.

In the Castle of Perseverance, for example, we see the hero, who represents Mankind, attended by a good and an evil angel; we see him yielding to various temptations, — personified as the World, Pleasure, Folly, and the like, — and finally saved through repentance and confession. The moral play of Everyman forces home upon the mind and conscience of the hearer a conviction of the shortness of human life and of the vanity of merely earthly interests. The almost unequaled power of this play consists in the universal importance of its theme. The experience of Everyman is, or will be, ours; each hearer moves toward the grave with him, and sees in his struggles and shortcomings the image of his own.

The earliest moral play extant dates from the reign of Henry VI (1422–1461), but mention is made of some still earlier.

Interludes. — A third kind of play that preceded the regular drama was the Interlude, a short scene or dia

logue, often played between (interludo) the courses of a banquet, or between two serious scenes in a miracle play. The interlude existed for the pleasure, not the instruction, of the spectator, and hence in purpose was like the later drama rather than the older miracle or moral plays. The speakers in these witty conversations are not personifications as in the moralities; they are characters taken from real life, as Johan the husband and Tyb his wife, a Pardoner, a Friar, or a Curate. The most important interludes were composed by John HEYWOOD (1500-1565), a wit, musician, and poet of Henry VIII's court, and were produced before the king as independent plays.

The importance of the religious drama is brought home to us when we note that it existed in England for approximately five hundred years. It began shortly after the Norman Conquest and was not entirely displaced until after the time of Shakespeare's youth. In the period of its greatest popularity it went almost wherever the Church went. Plays of the medieval type were performed in one hundred and twenty-five recorded places in England, Ireland, and Scotland. They were acted in Edinburgh, in Aberdeen, in Dublin; and even in Cornwall, in the Cornish tongue. They were one of the most important means of popular education.

Relation of Miracle and Moral Plays to the Elizabethan Drama. — This early drama, although full of interest for the student, has, as a rule, but little poetic merit. Yet the miracle and morality plays, with all their uncouthness and deficiencies, were sustained and elevated by their stupendous themes; they dealt with issues so universal, that later dramatists could hardly escape treating them again, although in a different form. In fact there is a very real and vital relation between

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