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THE

MONTHLY REVIEW.

MAY, 1826.

ART. I. A Dissertation on the Pageants, or Dramatic Mysteries, anciently performed at Coventry, by the Trading Companies of that City; chiefly with reference to the Vehicle, Characters, and Dresses of the Actors. Compiled, in a great Degree, from Sources hitherto unexplored. To which are added, The Pageant of the Shearmen and Taylors' Company, and other Municipal Entertainments of a Public Nature. By Thomas Sharp. 4to. pp. 226. 37. 3s. (Small-Paper Copy.) Merridew and Sons. Coventry. 1825.

ENQUIRIES into the nature and peculiarities of the Mysteries, or Scriptural Plays of the middle ages, are not without interest in several points of view. The prevalence of these representations in every country of Europe is generally illustrative of the religious feelings and observances of the times which produced them: but in the study of English antiquities, more especially, much curious. light is thrown by such enquiries upon the manners, amusements, and popular tastes of our ancestors; and the subject forms altogether the natural and obvious introduction to the history of our national stage; for it is clear that the origin and rise of the English drama are to be traced exclusively to these mysteries, and to the moralities by which the choice of scenes strictly scriptural came later to be varied. How, or at what time precisely, the mysteries, or miracle plays, as they were indifferently termed, were first exhibited in: England, cannot now be ascertained; but it is certain that their introduction must be referred to a very remote period; and, as Malone has justly observed, Riccoboni, who contended that the Italian theatre is the most ancient in Europe, claimed for his country an honour to which she is not entitled. He could date the earliest representation of scriptural subjects in Italy no higher than the middle of the thirteenth century; and there is good evidence of such performances in England full one hundred and fifty years.

before.

In composing the elaborate work before us, to elucidate the performance of mysteries at Coventry, Mr. Sharp has mingled a full

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measure of attachment to his native city with all the zeal and industry of a thorough antiquarian: but he is, at the same time, possessed with some share of that overweening belief in the deep importance of his particular theme, which seems inevitably to result from the long pursuit of such researches; and when we find him complaining, in the outset, that the religious dramas, or mysteries, have hitherto been treated in a very superficial and unsatisfactory manner,' it is evident either that he has conceived a very extravagant opinion of the paramount magnitude of the subject, or that he very much exaggerates the value and novelty of his own discoveries; for, in truth, the mysteries have always been treated with quite a sufficient degree of attention by the historians of our drama and poetry. All these writers have unanimously agreed in referring to scriptural exhibitions for the origin and rise of the English stage; and they have usually been quite as diffuse on their notice of them as the occasion deserved. Not to mention names of less celebrity, both Warton, in his elegant history of our poetry, and Dr. Percy, the ingenious collector of our ancient ballads, have made full and, in general, most accurate investigations into these earliest dramatic performances; and Malone, whose industry, whatever may be otherwise deemed of the powers of his mind, has rendered his Historical Account of the English Stage an invaluable repository of facts, having collected from those authors and other sources almost all that was worth knowing on the characteristics of the religious plays.

If any farther illustration of the subject was required by antiquarian curiosity, Mr. Markland's History of the Chester Mysteries has, within a few years, amply afforded it. That gentleman printed, in 1818, specimens of two of those plays, for circulation exclusively among the members of the Roxburghe Club, and prefixed to his work an elaborate dissertation on the religious drama, in which he corrected the few trifling errors of Warton and Malone. Mr. Markland's Introduction has since been inserted in Mr. Boswell's twenty-one volume edition of Shakspeare, and is therefore no longer withheld, in the jealous obscurity and petty seclusion of a few libraries, from the perusal of the general reader.

But if any proof were wanting of the futility of Mr. Sharp's complaint, that the illustration of the miracle plays has been neglected, or superficially treated, its refutation is to be found in the pages of his own goodly quarto. Notwithstanding the boast of his title-page, that his dissertation has been compiled, in a great degree, from sources hitherto unexplored,' he has altogether failed in the attempt to add a single fact of importance to the previous stores of our general knowledge on his subject. Whatever certain antiquarians may delight to believe, the useful end of investigation does not consist in the laborious trifling with which the attention is frittered away upon minute certainties and petty doubts. The scholar of enlarged mind and philosophical reflection will view such enquiries as those before us with reference only to the light which they can

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