A Life of William Shakespeare

By Joseph Quincy Adams | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VII
THE RISE OF PROFESSIONALISM IN THE DRAMA

LET us leave Shakespeare teaching classical literature in his country school, and glance at the rise of the new professions of acting and of playwriting which were shortly to tempt him to the great city of London.

The earliest forms of dramatic entertainment in England, offshoots from the liturgy of the Church, were acted by clerics as a part of the religious service. After these simple representations had grown into long and complicated plays, they were taken out of the church buildings, in the twelfth or thirteenth century, and turned over to the laity for more elaborate performance. With the establishment of the Corpus Christi Festival in 1311, the various Biblical episodes of the Old and New Testament were made into separate plays, and each was intrusted to one or more of the trade guilds, which were required to assume full responsibility for its staging, and to supply from their own members suitable actors. And as the drama became generally recognized as an effective and entertaining means of religious instruction, churches, villages, schools, and miscellaneous organizations began to devise short plays dealing with the lives and miracles of their patron saints, or teaching in allegorical form the plan of salvation. Finally local history, and even secular stories, were put on the stage for the edification and amusement of audiences. But the acting of all these plays was in the hands of amateurs, and such a thing as the commercialization of the drama was virtually unknown.

Not infrequently, however, these amateur actors took

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