« AnteriorContinuar »
that subject cursorily and incidentally, he has not attempted to trace its development and improvement to the period to which his work extends. The field of English poetry was too wide for him to dwell even upon its most remarkable productions.
This deficiency I have attempted to supply; and, as far as zeal and industry merit success, I claim to have deserved it. Thus far every man has a right to speak of his own qualifications, though I am well aware how many others are necessary for the completion of such an undertaking. To a large mass of facts that are quite new, I have been careful to add the valuable, but scattered information furnished by Warton; but it seemed to me that the dramatic poetry of this country formed of itself a department so important and interesting, as to demand to be separately and systematically examined. For England to possess the greatest dramatic poets of the world, and to be without a history of her dramatic poetry, seemed an extraordinary solecism in letters.
The present work consists of three divisions:-
II. A History of Dramatic Poetry.
III. An Account of Theatres and their Appur
In point of novelty and interest, I ought first to have treated the second of these branches; but I
thought that an enquiry into the progress of dramatic poetry ought to be preceded by such details as I could furnish regarding the public or private encouragement it from time to time received, and the state of society at particular periods when the stage either flourished or declined. The Annals of the Stage commence at the earliest period to which any records of the kind extend; and they supply facts connected with the establishment, promotion, limitation, or suppression of the theatre, as a national institution, down to the Restoration. It is admitted, that after this event our drama assumed an entirely new character. By the discovery of some valuable manuscripts, I have been able to carry back this portion of my inquiry to a more remote period than any precursor; and I have added many new and curious particulars, of a later date, to the scanty stock of knowledge before acquired.
When I commenced my researches, nearly twenty years ago, I was discouraged on all hands by those who imagined that Malone, Steevens, Reed, and Chalmers had exhausted the subject, and that, in the harvest they had reaped, they had not left even gleanings behind them. Nevertheless, seeing how many deficiencies remained to be supplied, I persevered in the collection of materials. I obtained admission into the State Paper Department, the Privy Council Office, and into the Chapter-House, Westminster, and I soon
discovered in those depositories many valuable original documents, throwing a fresh, clear, and strong light upon some of the most obscure parts of the history of our stage and drama. Among these were unopened patents to different companies of players, and original accounts of the royal revels from the early part of the reign of Henry VIII.; while the unexamined books of the domestic expenses of our Kings and nobility, from the reign of Edward IV. downwards, provided me with a great variety of novel and interesting details.
These sources of information had not been open to general search, and I was therefore not much surprised to find that a great deal had escaped discovery; but when I came to examine the manuscripts in that great national receptacle, the British Museum, to which every body could easily obtain access, I was astonished at the quantity of substantial materials which had remained there undetected. From the Burghley Papers scarcely a single fact had been procured, although nearly every volume contained matters of importance; and the Harleian, Cottonian, and Royal MSS. had been only cursorily and hastily inspected *.
*To show how little attention they had attracted, I need only mention, that among the Royal MSS. I found two of Ben Jonson's Masks, in his own hand-writing, nowhere noticed but in the Catalogue, which is itself very imperfect.
In these I met with letters from, and concerning, our most notorious poets, the predecessors and contemporaries of Shakespeare; and in a Diary, kept by an intelligent Barrister, who lived while our great dramatist was in the zenith of his popularity, I found original and authentic notices and anecdotes of him, Spenser, Jonson, Marston, and other distinguished authors of the time. It occupied me some years to go through the voluminous collections in the Museum, but I never had occasion to regret the misspending of a single hour so employed.
In the second division of my work, the History of Dramatic Poetry, I begin with Miracle-plays (hitherto mistakenly termed Mysteries'), as the source and foundation of our national drama; and I have, for the first time, adduced some proofs, that we were indebted for them to France. The account I have given of them contains much that was before unknown; and the whole subject, while it is curious to the antiquary, will not be found without interest to the general reader. I am not aware of the existence of any performance of the kind in our language, whatever may be its date, that I have not carefully examined. I have thence traced the connection between Miracle-plays, consisting in the outset only of Scripture characters, and Moral-plays (or Moralities' as they have been of late years usually denominated),
represented by allegorical personages; and I have shown how the first, almost imperceptibly, deviated into the last, by the gradual intermixture of allegory with sacred history, until Miracle-plays were finally superseded.
This view of the subject, which does not seem to have occurred to any who have gone before me, is succeeded by a similar investigation of the structure and design of Moral-plays. I have endeavoured to point out the manner in which they, in turn, gave way to Tragedy and Comedy, by the introduction, from time to time, of characters in actual life, or supposed to be drawn from it. With this purpose, I have inspected, I believe, all, and in the course of the work reviewed most of the principal Moral-plays in our language, whether printed or manuscript, commencing with those most nearly allied to the Miracle-plays they excluded, and proceeding by gradations to those which, in their form, characters, and dialogue, more or less distantly resemble Tragedy and Comedy. It will be seen, in the course of this inquiry, that in process of time their separate natures became mixed and confounded, and that ultimately, as might be expected, the real was entirely substituted for the fictitious.
The growth of Tragedy and Comedy, from their infancy until they reached maturity in the hands of Shakespeare, has next been considered. I am not