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§ 1. Theatrical and dramatic conditions in 1580

[About 1580 Elizabethan drama began its course. Shakespeare probably came to London in 1586.]

And so our scene must to the battle fly;
Where, O for pity, we shall much disgrace,
With four or five most vile and ragged foils,
Right ill dispos'd in brawl ridiculous,

The name of Agincourt. Yet, sit and see;
Minding true things by what their mockeries be.

Henry V., IV. chorus 48-53

Polonius. The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited: Seneca cannot be too heavy, nor Plautus too light.

Hamlet, II. ii. 424—429

Esthetic condemnation

[Sir Philip Sidney criticizes the theatre of his day by classical standards, but his remarks throw considerable light upon the state of the drama.]

Our tragedies and comedies (not without cause cried out against), observing rules neither of honest civility nor of skilful poetry, excepting Gorboduc (again, I say, of those that I have seen), which, notwithstanding as it is full of stately speeches and well-sounding phrases, climbing to the height of Seneca his style, and as full of notable morality, which it doth most delightfully teach, and so obtain the very end of poesy, yet in troth it is very defectious in the circumstances; which grieveth me, because it might not remain as an exact model of all tragedies. For it is faulty both in place and time, the two necessary companions of all corporal actions. For where the stage should always represent but one place, and the uttermost time presupposed in it should be, both by Aristotle's precept and common reason, but one day, there is both many days and many places, inartificially imagined. But if it be so in Gorboduc, how much more in all the rest? where you shall have Asia of the one side, and Afric of the other, and so many other under-kingdoms, that the player, when he cometh in, must ever begin with telling where he is: or else, the tale will not be conceived. Now ye shall have three ladies walk to gather flowers, and then we must believe the stage to be a garden. By and by, we hear news of shipwreck in the same place, and then we are to blame, if we accept it not for a rock.

Upon the back of that, comes out a hideous monster with fire and smoke, and then the miserable beholders are bound to take it for a cave. While in the mean-time two armies fly in, represented with four swords and bucklers, and then what hard heart will not receive it for a pitched field? 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 is lost, groweth a man, falls in love, and is ready to get another child; and all this in two hours' space: which how absurd it is in sense, even sense may imagine, and art hath taught, and all ancient examples justified, and at this day the ordinary players in Italy will not err in. Yet will some bring in an example of Eunuchus in Terence, that containeth matter of two days, yet far short of twenty years. True it is, and so was it to be played in two days, and so fitted to the time it set forth. And though Plautus hath in one place done amiss, let us hit with him, and not miss with him. But they will say, how then shall we set forth a story, which containeth both many places and many times? And do they not know, that a tragedy is tied to the laws of poesy, and not of history? not bound to follow the story, but having liberty either to feign a quite new matter, or to frame the history to the most tragical conveniency. Again many things may be told which cannot be shewed, if they know the difference betwixt reporting and representing. As for example, I may speak (though I am here) of Peru, and in speech digress from that to the description of Calicut but in action, I cannot represent it without Pacolet's horse and so was the manner the ancients took, by some Nuncius to recount things done in former time, or other place. Lastly, if they will represent an history, they must not (as Horace saith) begin ab ovo, but they must come to the principal of that one action which they will represent. By example this will be best expressed. I have a story of young Polidorus, delivered for safety's sake, with great riches, by his father Priamus to Polimnestor king of Thrace, in the Trojan war time he after some years, hearing the overthrow of Priamus, for to make the treasure his own murdered the child: the body of the child is taken up by Hecuba: she the same day findeth a slight to be revenged most cruelly of the tyrant. Where now would one of our tragedy writers begin, but with the delivery of the child? Then should he sail over into

Thrace, and so spend I know not how many years, and travel numbers of places. But where doth Euripides? Even with the finding of the body, leaving the rest to be told by the spirit of Polidorus. This need no further to be enlarged; the dullest wit may conceive it.

But besides these gross absurdities, how all their plays be neither right tragedies nor right comedies: mingling kings and clowns, not because the matter so carrieth it, but thrust in clowns by head and shoulders, to play a part in majestical matters, with neither decency nor discretion. So as neither the admiration and commiseration nor the right sportfulness is by their mongrel tragi-comedy obtained. I know Apuleius did somewhat so, but that is a thing recounted with space of time, not represented in one moment: and I know the ancients have one or two examples of tragi-comedies, as Plautus hath Amphitrio, but if we mark them well, we shall find, that they never or very daintily match horn-pipes and funerals. So falleth it out, that having indeed no right comedy, in that comical part of our tragedy we have nothing but scurrility, unworthy of any chaste ears, or some extreme shew of doltishness, indeed fit to lift up a loud laughter and nothing else: where the whole tract of a comedy should be full of delight, as the tragedy should be still maintained in a well-raised admiration. But our comedians think there is no delight without laughter; which is very wrong, for though laughter may come with delight, yet cometh it not of delight, as though delight should be the cause of laughter: but well may one thing breed both together; nay, rather in themselves they have as it were a kind of contrariety. For delight we scarcely do but in things that have a conveniency to ourselves or to the general nature. Laughter almost ever cometh of things most disproportioned to ourselves and nature. Delight hath a joy in it, either permanent or present. Laughter hath only a scornful tickling....

But I have lavished out too many words of this play matter. I do it because as they are excelling parts of poesy, so is there none so much used in England and none can be more pitifully abused: which like an unmannerly daughter, shewing a bad education, causeth her mother Poesy's honesty to be called in question.

SIR PHILIP SIDNEY, An Apologie for Poetrie 1595 (written in 1581)

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