Gammer Gurton’s Needle, the work of William Stevenson, a little-known pre-Shakespearean writer, was acted at Christ’s College, Cambridge, shortly after the middle of the sixteenth century. This play borrows hardly anything from the classical stage. Most of the characters of Gammer Gurton’s Needle are from the lowest English working classes, and its language, unlike that of Ralph Royster Doyster, which has little to offend, is very coarse.
Gorboduc and the Dramatic Unities.—The tragedy of Gorboduc, the first regular English tragedy written in blank verse, was acted in 1561, three years before the birth of Shakespeare. This play is in part the work of Thomas Sackville (1536-1608), a poet and diplomat, the author of two powerful somber poems, the Induction and Complaint of the Duke of Buckingham. In spite of their heavy narrative form, these poems are in places even more dramatic than the dull tragedy of Gorboduc, which was fashioned after the classical rules of Seneca and the Greeks. Gorboduc requires little action on the stage. There is considerable bloodshed in the play; but the spectators are informed of the carnage by a messenger, as they are not permitted to witness a bloody contest on the stage.
[Illustration: THOMAS SACKVILLE.]
If Gorboduc had been taken for a model, the English drama could never have attained Shakespearean greatness. Our drama would then have been crippled by following the classical rules, which prescribed unity of place and time in the plot and the action. The ancients held that a play should not represent actions which would, in actual life, require much more than twenty-four hours for their performance. If one of the characters was a boy, he had to be represented as a boy throughout the play. The next act could not introduce him as one who had grown to manhood in the interval. The classical rules further required that the action should be performed in one place, or near it. Anything that happened at a great distance had to be related by a messenger, and not acted on the stage.
Had these rules been followed, the English drama could never have painted the growth and development of character, which is not the work of a day. The genius of Marlowe and Shakespeare taught them to disregard these dramatic unities. In As You Like It, the action is now at the court, and now in the far-off Forest of Arden. Shakespeare knew that the imagination could traverse the distance. At the beginning of the play Oliver is an unnatural, brutal brother; but events change him, so that in the fourth act, when he is asked if he is the man who tried to kill his brother, Oliver replies:—
“’Twas I; but ’tis not I.”
[Illustration: THEATER IN INN YARD. From Columbia University model.]