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THE USE OF PROSE IN ENGLISH DRAMA BEFORE SHAKESPEARE J. F. MACDONALD "WHENEVER the Elizabethans wanted to slow down for rhythmic purposes, or to concen- - trate attention, or to develop a convincing argument, they gave the wheel to prose." This airy generalization by Heltubada in Bonamy Dobree's Histriophon .e set me rummaging over some old notes on the use of prose in the English drama down to 1595. - \Vhat .I found in them made it seem worth while to put together the facts I had collected so that their bearing, especially on Shakespeare's use of prose, might be available for other students who, like myself, prefer the sober evidence of historical developmen t to the fitful illumination of that dubious inner guidance which seems now to be fashionable in both religion and criticism. This little paper is an attempt to answer the following questions somewhat more fully than anyone has yet seen fit to do: (I) When and why did prose come to be used in English plays? (2) What conventions as to its use grew up before the time of Shakespeare? In these days of the prose drama it may be some\vhat surprising to the layman in such matters fa learn that, until near the end of the sixteenth century, English plays were written wholly in verse. The oldest surviving specimens of our drama, the mystery and miracle plays, have no passages in prose. A good many elementary histories of English literature make vague statements about the extempore use of prose by certain mare . or less corriic figures in these old plays. It is stated, for instance} in one weil-known book that the stage direction, "Here 465 THE UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY shall Herod rage," evidently implies that the actor of Herod's part was free to ~xtemporize as he wished, and would naturally do so in prose. A fairly careful exan1ination ,of the standard editions' of the York, Towneley, Chester, Coventry, and Digby plays has convinced me that ,this inference isi quite erroneous. The stage direction , , "Hic Herod irabit" is no' evidence that the actor of the part was to speak extempore. The speech in which he is to "rage" is given, and it is in verse; the'direction is evidently intended to guide the acting only. Much is made, too, in some text-books, of the standing quarrel between the actors of clown parts and the playwrights. The "locus classicus" on the subject is, of course, Hamlet's warning to the players: "And let those that play 'your clowns speak no more than is set down for them; for there be of them that will themselves laugh, to set on, some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too, though in the meantime some nece~sary question of the play be then to be considered; that's villainous, and shows a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it." , Similar complaints about this annoying habit of the clowns are not uncom- ,mon in books that date from the early seventeenth century or later, but I have not been able to find any reference that is prior to the pre,sence of prose in the printed texts of the plays. In the absence of proof to the contrary, it is ahnost cer'tain that the use of prose , by the playwrights preceded the abuse of it by the clowns. I t is true that we do find,prose used in certain specimens of folk-dralna) and that these folk-plays, in origin at ' least, are very old. In the so-called Revesby Sword Play,for instance, the long dialogue between Pickle-Herring and the Fool is wholly in prose.l This evidence, however, is not of great importance. We have no old manuscripts or lSpecimens oj the Pre-Shakesperean Drama, ed. Manly, I, pp. 299-302. - PROSE IN ENGLISH DRAMA print. ed texts of these plays. Chambers, who is probably the best English authority on the subject, makes the definite:statement in┬Ěhis history of the mediaeval stage: "I have never seen or heard of a .'black-letter' copy."2 Further, the comparatively modern texts that we have do not seem wholly reliable. The...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 465-481
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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