The Grandest Scene In History

Though Scrymgeour only painted in watercolors, I think--I never looked

at his pictures--he had one superb idea, which we often advised him to

carry out. When he first mentioned it the room became comparatively

animated, so much struck were we all, and we entreated him to retire to

Stratford for a few months, before beginning the picture. His idea was

to paint Shakespeare smoking his first pipe of the Arcadia Mixture.

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Many hundreds of volumes have been written about the glories of the

Elizabethan age, the sublime period in our history. Then were Englishmen

on fire to do immortal deeds. High aims and noble ambitions became their

birthright. There was nothing they could not or would not do for England.

Sailors put a girdle round the world. Every captain had a general's

capacity; every fighting-man could have been a captain. All the women,

from the queen downward, were heroines. Lofty statesmanship guided the

conduct of affairs, a sublime philosophy was in the air. The period of

great deeds was also the period of our richest literature. London was

swarming with poetic geniuses. Immortal dramatists wandered in couples

between stage doors and taverns.

All this has been said many times; and we read these glowing outbursts

about the Elizabethan age as if to the beating of a drum. But why was

this period riper for magnificent deeds and noble literature than any

other in English history? We all know how the thinkers, historians, and

critics of yesterday and to-day answer that question; but our hearts and

brains tell us that they are astray. By an amazing oversight they have

said nothing of the Influence of Tobacco. The Elizabethan age might be

better named the beginning of the smoking era. No unprejudiced person

who has given thought to the subject can question the propriety of

dividing our history into two periods--the pre-smoking and the smoking.

When Raleigh, in honor of whom England should have changed its name,

introduced tobacco into this country, the glorious Elizabethan age

began. I am aware that those hateful persons called Original Researchers

now maintain that Raleigh was not the man; but to them I turn a deaf

ear. I know, I feel, that with the introduction of tobacco England woke

up from a long sleep. Suddenly a new zest had been given to life. The

glory of existence became a thing to speak of. Men who had hitherto only

concerned themselves with the narrow things of home put a pipe into

their mouths and became philosophers. Poets and dramatists smoked until

all ignoble ideas were driven from them, and into their place rushed

such high thoughts as the world had not known before. Petty jealousies

no longer had hold of statesmen, who smoked, and agreed to work together

for the public weal. Soldiers and sailors felt, when engaged with a

foreign foe, that they were fighting for their pipes. The whole country

was stirred by the ambition to live up to tobacco. Every one, in short,

had now a lofty ideal constantly before him. Two stories of the period,

never properly told hitherto, illustrate this. We all know that Gabriel

Harvey and Spenser lay in bed discussing English poetry and the forms

it ought to take. This was when tobacco was only known to a select few,

of whom Spenser, the friend of Raleigh, was doubtless one. That the

two friends smoked in bed I cannot doubt. Many poets have done the same

thing since. Then there is the beautiful Armada story. In a famous

Armada picture the English sailors are represented smoking; which makes

it all the more surprising that the story to which I refer has come

down to us in an incorrect form. According to the historians, when the

Armada hove in sight the English captains were playing at bowls. Instead

of rushing off to their ships on receipt of the news, they observed,

Let us first finish our game. I cannot believe that this is what they

said. My conviction is that what was really said was, Let us first

finish our pipes--surely a far more impressive and memorable remark.

This afternoon Marlowe's Jew of Malta was produced for the first

time; and of the two men who have just emerged from the Blackfriars

Theatre one is the creator of _Barabas_. A marvel to all the

piperly make-plaies and make-bates, save one, is famous Ned Alleyn;

for when money comes to him he does not drink till it be done, and

already he is laying by to confound the ecclesiastics, who say hard

things of him, by founding Dulwich College. Not Roscius nor Æsope,

said Tom Nash, who was probably in need of a crown at the time, ever

performed more in action. A good fellow he is withal; for it is Ned who

gives the supper to-night at the Globe, in honor of the new piece, if

he can get his friends together. The actor-manager shakes his head, for

Marlowe, who was to meet him here, must have been seduced into a tavern

by the way; but his companion, Robin Greene, is only wondering if that

is a bailiff at the corner. Robin of the ruffianly haire, _utriusque

academiæ artibus magister_, is nearing the end of his tether, and

might call to-night at shoemaker Islam's house near Dowgate, to tell

a certain bigge, fat, lusty wench to prepare his last bed and buy a

garland of bays. Ned must to the sign of the Saba in Gracious Street,

where Burbage and honest gamesom Armin are sure to be found; but

Greene durst not show himself in the street without Cutting Ball and

other choice ruffians as a body-guard. Ned is content to leave them

behind; for Robin has refused to be of the company to-night if that

upstart Will is invited too, and the actor is fond of Will. There is

no more useful man in the theatre, he has said to Signior Kempino

this very day, for touching up old plays; and Will is a plodding young

fellow, too, if not over-brilliant.

Ned Alleyn goes from tavern to tavern, picking out his men. There is an

ale-house in Sea-coal Lane--the same where lady-like George Peele was

found by the barber, who had subscribed an hour before for his decent

burial, all alone with a peck of oysters--and here Ned is detained an

unconscionable time. Just as he is leaving with Kempe and Cowley, Armin

and Will Shakespeare burst in with a cry for wine. It is Armin who gives

the orders, but his companion pays. They spy Alleyn, and Armin must tell

his news. He is the bearer of a challenge from some merry souls at the

Saba to the actor-manager; and Ned Alleyn turns white and red when he

hears it. Then he laughs a confident laugh, and accepts the bet. Some

theatre-goers, flushed with wine, have dared him to attempt certain

parts in which Bentley and Knell vastly please them. Ned is incredulous

that men should be so willing to fling away their money; yet here is

Will a witness, and Burbage is staying on at the Saba not to let the

challengers escape.

The young man of twenty-four, at the White Horse in Friday Street, is

Tom Nash; and it is Peele who is swearing that he is a monstrous clever

fellow, and helping him to finish his wine. But Peele is glad to see Ned

and Cowley in the doorway, for Tom has a weakness for reading aloud the

good things from his own manuscripts. There is only one of the company

who is not now sick to death of Nash's satires on Martin Marprelate; and

perhaps even he has had enough of them, only he is as yet too obscure a

person to say so. That is Will; and Nash detains him for a moment just

to listen to his last words on the Marprelate controversy. Marprelate

now appears with a wit worn into the socket, twingling and pinking like

the snuff of a candle; _quantum mutatus ab illo!_ how unlike the

knave he was before, not for malice but for sharpness. The hogshead was

even come to the hauncing, and nothing could be drawne from him but the

dregs. Will says it is very good; and Nash smiles to himself as he puts

the papers in his pockets and thinks vaguely that he might do something

for Will. Shakespeare is not a university man, and they say he held

horses at the doors of the Globe not long ago; but he knows a good thing

when he hears it.

All this time Marlowe is at the Globe, wondering why the others are so

long in coming; but not wondering very much--for it is good wine they

give you at the Globe. Even before the feast is well begun Kit's eyes

are bloodshot and his hands unsteady. Death is already seeking for him

at a tavern in Deptford, and the last scene in a wild, brief life starts

up before us. A miserable ale-house, drunken words, the flash of a

knife, and a man of genius has received his death-blow. What an epitaph

for the greatest might-have-been in English literature: Christopher

Marlowe, slain by a serving-man in a drunken brawl, aged twenty-nine!

But by the time Shakespeare had reached his fortieth birthday every one

of his fellow-playwrights round that table had rushed to his death.

The short stout gentleman who is fond of making jokes, and not

particular whom he confides them to, has heard another good story about

Tarleton. This is the low comedian Kempe, who stepped into the shoes of

flat-nosed, squinting Tarleton the other day, but never quite manages

to fill them. He whispers the tale across Will's back to Cowley, before

it is made common property; and little fancies, as he does so, that any

immortality he and his friend may gain will be owing to their having

played, before the end of the sixteenth century, the parts of _Dogberry_

and _Verges_ in a comedy by Shakespeare, whom they are at present

rather in the habit of patronizing. The story is received with

boisterous laughter, for it suits the time and place.

Peele is in the middle of a love-song when Kit stumbles across the room

to say a kind word to Shakespeare. That is a sign that George is not yet

so very tipsy; for he is a gallant and a squire of dames so long as he

is sober. There is not a maid in any tavern in Fleet Street who does not

think George Peele the properest man in London. And yet, Greene being

absent, scouring the street with Cutting Ball--whose sister is mother of

poor Fortunatus Greene--Peele is the most dissolute man in the Globe

to-night. There is a sad little daughter sitting up for him at home, and

she will have to sit wearily till morning. Marlowe's praises would sink

deeper into Will's heart if the author of the Jew of Malta were less

unsteady on his legs. And yet he takes Kit's words kindly, and is glad

to hear that Titus Andronicus, produced the other day, pleases the man

whose praise is most worth having. Will Shakespeare looks up to Kit

Marlowe, and Titus Andronicus is the work of a young playwright who

has tried to write like Kit. Marlowe knows it, and he takes it as

something of a compliment, though he does not believe in imitation

himself. He would return now to his seat beside Ned Alleyn; but the

floor of the room is becoming unsteady, and Ned seems a long way off.

Besides, Shakespeare's cup would never require refilling if there were

not some one there to help him drink.

The fun becomes fast and furious; and the landlord of the Globe puts

in an appearance, ostensibly to do his guests honor by serving them

himself. But he is fearful of how the rioting may end, and, if he

dared, he would turn Nash into the street. Tom is the only man there

whom the landlord--if that man had only been a Boswell--personally

dislikes; indeed, Nash is no great favorite even with his comrades. He

has a bitter tongue, and his heart is not to be mellowed by wine. The

table roars over his sallies, of which the landlord himself is dimly

conscious that he is the butt, and Kempe and Cowley wince under his

satire. Those excellent comedians fall out over a trifling difference

of opinion; and handsome Nash--he tells us himself that he was handsome,

so there can be no doubt about it--maintains that they should decide

the dispute by fist-cuffs without further loss of time. While Kempe and

Cowley threaten to break each other's heads--which, indeed, would be

no great matter if they did it quietly--Burbage is reciting vehemently,

with no one heeding him; and Marlowe insists on quarrelling with Armin

about the existence of a Deity. For when Kit is drunk he is an infidel.

Armin will not quarrel with anybody, and Marlowe is exasperated.

But where is Shakespeare all this time? He has retired to a side table

with Alleyn, who has another historical play that requires altering.

Their conversation is of comparatively little importance; what we are

to note with bated breath is that Will is filling a pipe. His face is

placid, for he does not know that the tobacco Ned is handing him is the

Arcadia Mixture. I love Ned Alleyn, and like to think that Shakespeare

got the Arcadia from him.

For a moment let us turn from Shakespeare at this crisis in his life.

Alleyn has left him and is paying the score. Marlowe remains where he

fell. Nash has forgotten where he lodges, and so sets off with Peele to

an ale-house in Pye Corner, where George is only too well known. Kempe

and Cowley are sent home in baskets.

Again we turn to the figure in the corner, and there is such a light on

his face that we shade our eyes. He is smoking the Arcadia, and as he

smokes the tragedy of Hamlet takes form in his brain.

This is the picture that Scrymgeour will never dare to paint. I know

that there is no mention of tobacco in Shakespeare's plays, but those

who smoke the Arcadia tell their secret to none, and of other mixtures

they scorn to speak.