It is not generally known that in Hampton Court Palace we have the only surviving theatre where Shakespeare's plays were acted in his lifetime; doubtless in his presence and under his own guidance. All the public theatres-the "Curtain" and the " Swan," and, particularly, the "Blackfriars " and " the great 'Globe' " itself-all have vanished and "left not a rack behind."
A similar fate has overtaken most of the halls which served as playhouses in the royal palaces. There remain, of course, the Halls of Gray's Inn and of the Middle Temple, in the first of which there is record of a performance, in 1594 on Innocents Day at night, of the "Comedy of Errors"; and in the second, in 1602 on Candlemas Day at night, of "Twelfth Night." But both these performances were solitary and casual ones, for which little or no preparation was made, of which no particulars have been preserved, and which, therefore, throw no light on the history of the stage.
Quite the reverse, and entirely exceptional, is the case at Hampton Court, where can be traced out and identified an Elizabethan or Jacobean playhouse as complete as any of the public ones of Shakespeare's time. It is in this that consists the peculiar interest of the Great Hall, the "Great Watching Chamber,"the actors' Tyring Room," the "Horn Room," and the " Haunted Gallery."
A sketch of the "Great Hall" shows the site of the stage at Hampton Court Palace.
by W.B. Robinson
We have to remember that the Court performances differed in many ways from those that took place in the public theatres-not only in the external conditions under which they were viewed, but also in their general atmosphere and surroundings. These and other considerations seem to render it worthwhile trying to reconstruct, by means of such "ancient material as remains to us-in the shape of the original bills among the Lord Chamberlain's records, or those of the "Treasurer of the Chamber" and the " Master of the Revels "- to piece together, with the aid of a date here or an allusion there in some worm-eaten fragment of a letter or some scrap of an old account, a sort of mosaic of a play night at Court in the time of "great Eliza" or King James.
Two of the chief points of difference which stand out in this connection are, first, that the Court playhouse was, unlike a public one, as entirely closed in and roofed over as are any of our modern ones, and with decorations not less gorgeous, though in far better taste; and secondly, that the performances always took place at night. Over the stage, therefore, as well as over the heads of the spectators, instead of the open sky- or, in the case of the more expensive seats in the Curtain and Globe, a roughly boarded ceiling-there stretched the splendid and elaborate Gothic roof of Henry the Eighth's Great Hall, its fretted tracery glittering with hundreds of starry lamps strung on wires from rafter to rafter. Below, on the floor, stood candelabra, and on the walls were fixed sconces with candles, and elsewhere occasionally cresset lamps. All around the assembled company, instead of the commonly constructed and some what shabby posts and boards at the common theatres, were, high above sixteen lofty mullioned windows, moulded and carved, with their 160 lights enclosing lustrous stained glass, reflecting from the uneven surfaces of their leaded panes the candles and lamps that gleamed around. Below, hung the same resplendent tapestries of "The Story of Abraham" that still hang on these walls.
Such were the surroundings in the theatre. As to the spectators themselves the brilliant throng of splendidly attired courtiers, ambassadors, and beautiful women-they were seated on either side, on tiers raised one above the other, leaving the middle of the floor clear for an unobstructed view from the dais, where sat the King and Queen and the young Princes, and any favoured guests. These and the rest of the Court entered through the beautiful doorway, at present hidden by tapestry, but shown in Mr. W. B. Robinson's drawings. The royal platform was usually raised a foot or two above the level of the dais, and was always covered with rich Oriental carpets. The King and his party sat in "elbow chairs," with cushions finely embroidered. The rest of the floor of the hall was sometimes covered with rush matting, more often with green cloth, with which the stage was also frequently carpeted. Sometimes the floor was strewn with roses or other flowers, and almost invariably we find record of perfumes being burnt and scents being sprayed about.
Another distinctive feature of equal significance with the foregoing was the comparatively elaborate stage effects with which all dramatic entertainments were presented at Court. Few are the devices of the modern stage-carpenter for which the "Master of the Revels " and the King's architect, Master Inigo Jones, did not design prototypes.
In the matter of dresses and properties a similar magnificence invariably marked the performances in the royal palaces; there being a regular department of State, maintained at a considerable annual cost, with a regular staff of tailors, haberdashers, hairdressers, wire-drawers, painters, etc., to provide and keep in store all necessaries of this sort.
The stage, as already indicated, was erected at the end of the hall, in front of the Minstrels' Loft and the "Screens," the openings in which were used as entrances and exits-in the rear, as in the public theatres. The Minstrels' Loft above the " Screens " served for the King's " Musycions," and also for spectators and actors off the stage. The fireplace by which they kept themselves warm on cold winter nights, and which is all scrawled over with names, rebuses, and initials (revealed a few months ago by judicious cleaning) still remains. It was also used for certain incidents in the plays, such as where Gloucester ("Richard III.") enters "in a gallery above, between two bishops," where Juliet appears at her balcony, and where Prospero is seen " above invisible." Against those very pillars of the " Screens," which support the Minstrels' loft, Shakespeare and his fellows must have leant, peeping through the curtains or "traverses " to watch the progress of the play. Under the Loft, in the middle of the wall at the back of the " Screens," is the old Tudor doorway which leads into the actors' " Tyring room," hidden for several centuries until uncovered a few months ago. Passing through it - in imagination, for it is now bricked up - we enter the room where Shakespeare and the players fore gathered with their tiremen, their property-men, their servitors, the Revels' men, the minstrels, singers, call-boys, prompters, critics. In all essential features it remains unchanged to-day. Through the half-open door on the left, opening into the "Screens," we can imagine the distant sound of viols, "lutes and soft recorders," reaching our dramatist's ears, when a gentleman usher, perhaps, hurries in with a message to say that the King has arrived and the play may begin.
Above the "Tyring room " is the "Upper Tyring room," also little altered since Shakespeare's time, which, being comparatively quiet and secluded, was probably used by him, Burbage, Hemynges, and other leading members for rest and retirement, and for transacting business.
The doorway of the turret, leading by a spiral stairway to the lower room, is the original; so are the old oak door and the ceiling beams. They are the same windows too, and the same fireplace by which Shakespeare must have sat.
Coming down again, we may pass out from the " Screens" through the great back doorway, down the wide flight of oaken steps, to the cloister. Along this Shakespeare would have passed, and then gone, either by the stairway leading up into the " Horn room "- where were stored for 200 years Queen Elizabeth's collection of horns and antlers-or by that leading up into the "Haunted Gallery," and so to the ' Great Watching Chamber,' if he were summoned to the royal presence. Similarly, he would have gone down this staircase after the play, past the "Serving Place"-with its hatches through which the actors' supper would have been handed out- to the "Drynkynge House," where the players, with the Revels' men and musicians, could regale themselves freely, each player's allowance on play days being a gallon and a half of good English ale.
Passing from the hall into the "King's Great Watching Chamber," as Shakespeare must often have done, we enter one of the most interesting Tudor rooms at Hampton Court, and to Shakespeareans one of the most inspiring in England. For it has this special significance-that it was used for rehearsals by the King's Company of Players and must have been used for this purpose for rehearsing " A Midsummer Night's Dream " acted, as already noted, in the Hall on New Year's Night, 1604, Bottom, it will be remembered, at the rehearsal of their comedy " Pyramus and Thisbe," talks of "leaving a casement of the Great Chamber window open that the moon may shine in"-and here we have such a chamber, and such a window, and such a casement.
Such were the arrangements for the King's Company and the performances of their plays when Shakespeare and his fellows were summoned by the Lord Chamberlain to Hampton Court for the Christmas holidays of 1603-4, during which season they acted seven pieces in the Hall-most of them, doubtless, by Shakespeare himself-before the King and the Court.
That the company were lodged for some three weeks within the precincts
of the Palace itself is pretty certain, for all intercourse with the neighbouring
villages was strictly forbidden on account of the plague. That they were
boarded at the King's expense as Grooms of the Chamber is quite certain.
That with all the courts and cloisters and all the galleries and chambers
remaining to us of the old romantic Tudor buildings they must have been
familiar, is equally certain.
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