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and Lucrece are only further instances of this versatility and curiosity. Prevailing emotional mood of any distinctive kind in this first period there is none.
With the three later divisions the case is very different. Here the temptation is obvious to interpret them respectively as periods of sunshine, gloom, and placidity in the dramatist's life. Up to a certain point this interpretation need not be quarrelled with. There is an appropriateness to the prime of life in the creation of the buoyant personalities of the Comedies and in the triumphant extrication of them from all the tangle of opposing forces invented only to be foiled. The profundity of reflection and the brooding on the mystery of life, of which the Tragedies give abundant evidence, were only possible, in the degree in which we find them, to a man who had already lived and seen much. It is bardly possible to refrain from associating the victories of good over evil in the Dramatic Romances with a mood natural to a sane spirit contemplating near the close of his career a world which had brought to him in large measure the things for which he had mainly striven. But it is easy to press this method too far. The succession of the various kinds of drama in Shakespeare's production bears a suggestive relation to what appears to have been the popular demand of the time; and if Tragedy was in vogue at a period when Shakespeare was ripe for writing it, then the world was fortunate in the coincidence. Yet the fact of this and similar coincidences should serve to guard us against supposing that the tone of the Tragedies is necessarily a reflection of gloom or pessimism in Shakespeare's soul. Great imaginative creation is, indeed, but rarely the outcome of experience immediately contemporary. Wordsworth's description of poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquillity," though not a universal formula, is most frequently a true account, and ought in itself to caution
us against the dogmatism that is based on the assumption that in drama and sonnet alike “Shakespeare unlocked his heart” and left the door ajar for all the world to see. If we are to find in the poet's work a record, not perhaps of his experience, but of his attitude toward human life and human nature, it must be by methods more subtle and cautions than are implied in the kind of inference we are discussing.
The height of Shakespeare's preëminence has frequently led to a manner of speaking which sets kim apart from his kind as something abnormal and unaccountable. Without entering into a discussion of the natural history of genius, it is desirable to recount those factors in his age and environment which explain many of his characteristics, even if they do not account for the magnitude of his achievement. For that achievement is of a range and quality so stupendous that it required for its accomplishment the highest degree of coincidence between the hour and the man.
The hour was, indeed, the most propitious that had occurred in the history of England. After the long controversies of the Reformation the country was for the time enjoying a comparative truce among warring sects. This truce was partly induced by the necessity of the nation's presenting a united front against the hostility of Spain ; and the period of peril had been succeeded by a mood of exhilaration that resulted naturally from the escape from a formidable danger, and the opening up of a national future of untold possibilities of expansion and conquest. The compiling of chronicles and of endless narratives of travel and exploration in the Western Ocean expressed and symbolized the rising pride in England's past and England's future ; and it supplied the basis for the most distinctively national part of the drama, that flourishing of Chronicle History which found its culmination in the martial rhetoric of Henry V.
From abroad there reached England at last the full impulse of the Renaissance. The more purely intellectual side of this movement had been delayed by the religious turmoil; but now that this was for the time assuaged, the stimulus to intellectual curiosity and the desire for imaginative entertainment had full scope. Men and books representing all the arts of the Continent poured into England, and hundreds of translations opened to those who could read no language but English the intellectual treasures of antiquity and of modern Italy, France, and Spain. A still less literate public were enabled to share the narrative element in this stream by the presentation of stories on the stage; and the plays based on Plutarch's Lives and French and Italian novelle represent respectively the classical and the contemporary elements in this contribution.
The drama in England had always largely represented what would have been the common reading matter of the people if the people had been able to read. Miracle plays, Moralities, and Interludes were each merely the translation into action and dialogue of the stories from Scripture and the Saints' Lives, of the characteristic medieval mode of allegory, of the bourgeoks humorous and satirical anecdote, which the illiterate populace could receive only by the ear. With the Revival of Learning came a vast expansion in the amount and variety of reading matter, especially on the side of secular literature and, more specifically, of the literature of entertainment; and in the reign of Elizabeth the drama showed a responsive development. In the work of Shakespeare's immediate predecessors, Lyly, Marlowe, Peele, Greene, and Kyd, the three forms of Comedy, History, and Tragedy had, partly under the influence of foreign and classical models, taken fairly definite shape. But they were still primarily dramatic arrangements of narrative rather than drama ; and to Shakespeare was offered the opportunity, of which he availed himself magnificently yet gradually, of framing and applying the conception of pure drama as a distinct form of art.
In considering his equipment for this momentous task two elements must be constantly kept in mind: that which he received as an actor and manager, and that which he had as a man well-read in the literature of his time. To the former must be credited a large part of his skill as a practical playwright, a factor that has not yet received its due in the interpretation of his dramas, but which accounts for this among other facts, that so large a number of his plays are still capable of effective presentation upon the modern stage. As a student of literature, Shakespeare's range was large, but not extraordinary. Latin be had presumably learned at school, and with the works of some half-dozen Latin writers he had begun an acquaintance while a boy. But, in addition to the learned Jonson's ascription to him of “small Latin and less Greek,” we have the evidence of the plays themselves that he used translations when he could get them. French be seems to have known fairly well; Italian he may have mastered to the extent of being able to extract the plot of a novel, but this is less certain. There is no evidence that he knew Spanish or Greek. The wide and detailed knowledge of history and fiction and of many arts and trades, the evidences of which lie open on every page, is no greater and no more accurate than would be expected of a mind of the quality of his, of an observation so keen, of sympathies so catholic and so intense.
Of an importance only less than the intellectual temper of the time and the moment in the development of the drama was the state of the language and of versification. Along with the enthusiasm for the classics and the cultivation of pure Latinity which characterized the Renaissance there appeared a patriotic desire to refine and dignify the vernacular of the various countries and, among them, of England. The pedantry of the group of men of letters known as the Areopagus, the Euphuism of Lyly, and the Arca
dianism of Sidney were only exaggerated instances of the wide-spread interest in what
A complete enumeration of the favorable elements in the civilization of Elizabethan
In attempting to see what are some of the more important qualities that made it possible for Shakespeare to rise to this opportunity, it will be well to note first some of the negative elements in the case. It was not for sheer invention that Shakespeare was unique or even preëminent in his profession. Every form of drama that he touched he carried to a lofty pitch of perfection, but none of them did he create. In two or three cases he seems to have constructed the plot of a play, but such plots are slight and not distinguished by any striking originality. Whenever possible, he borrowed his stories; and the transformation he worked on them is due to a kind of imagination quite other, if much rarer, than is implied in inventive contrivance. Further, in the mechanics of his plays, he repeated himself freely. When a device, a situation, a contrast of character, proved successful on the stage, he did not scruple to use it again and again, displaying in the variations be worked on it abundant cleverness, but at the same time a poverty, or, better
, an economy, of invention, in striking contrast to his lavish prodigality in thought
The element in his plays which, one is apt to think, must have struck the more
audience: the brilliance of phrase and sparkle of repartee; the consummate mastery of verse -- now sweet and lyrical, now throbbing with passion, now echoing the tread of armies, now heavy with thought; - the ingenuity of the stage-craft; the variety of scene and atmosphere. But to the modern student there are deeper things to be found, which may or may not have been evident to his contemporaries, of some of which the poet himself may not have been explicitly conscious.
It has been frequently charged gainst Shakespeare that in contrast with poets like Dante and Goethe his work embodies no religion, no philosophy. Whatever of truth there may be in this, it is surely inaccurately phrased. Certain it is he was no fanatic, the propagandist of no sect; what philosophy he had is presented in no systematic scheme. If he had been or done these things, he could not have been the supreme dramatist. But the profoundest thought is not necessarily framed into a scheme; the most philosophical artist need not speak through allegory or abstractions. Philosophical ideas find abundant expression in both the dramas and the sonnets of Shakespeare; obiter dicta occur of immense suggestiveness and power; and it is hardly possible to read the plays as a whole without becoming conscious of a characteristic attitude toward human nature and the problems of human life. The expression of this attitude naturally varies with the period and the theme. In the Histories the dominant idea is that which one finds elsewhere in the early narratives of these sad stories of the death of kings. Among the strange paradoxes of the Middle Ages none is more remarkable than the persistence, among the Christian conceptions of the Catholic Church, of the pagan goddess of Fortune. So continually is she referred to as the determining force in the destinies of the great, so awed and reverential is the tone in which her caprices are alluded to, that one is forced to the conclusion that she was to the men of that age no mere figure of speech, but a deity who was always feared and often worshipped. The narratives on which Shakespeare based his Histories were pervaded by this conception, and it survives with impressive effect in the speeches of his characters. How far he personally shared it, it is hard to say; but he availed himself of it in a hundred instances of dramatic irony, and it underlies his melancholy insistence on the merely human limitations that assert themselves in the career of every king. With no lack of appreciation of the pomp of monarchy, be yet asserts in play after play that, whether coupled with the futile piety of Henry VI, the unscrupulous tenacity of Richard III, the policy of Henry IV, or the triumphant effectiveness of Henry V,
'Tis not the balm, the sceptre, and the ball,
That beats upon the high shore of this world, that can separate the king from the pathos of common humanity.
In the Comedies there is no such unity of idea; but generalized reflection is abundantly evident in the dwelling in successive plays on certain tendencies of human nature and their results in action and character; such tendencies as sentimentalism, cynicism, selfishness, and self-deception. The philosophical significance of these plays stops short, as a rule, of the fifth act. The marrying off, at the close, of all eligible youths and maidens is more a concession to the convention of the happy ending demanded by the particular type of drama than the logical outcome of the characters or their deeds. One is not convinced that Shakespeare believed that this was the way things happened in life ; but a comedy
mast end 80, and he provided accordingly a conventional dénouement, too often showing traces of the perfunctoriness of his interest in such an artificial adjustment.
Very different is his treatment of the conclusion of Tragedy. Here the crime or weakness which marks the tragic hero is shown bearing its inevitable fruit in suffering and disaster; and the great Tragedies form the crown of his achievement not only because they deal with the more serious problems of life, but because here are found all the elements of poetry, characterization, and construction, in each of which he had attained mastery in earlier plays, but which now are brought to their loftiest pitch and combined. Nowbere else are the two great dramatic elements of character and plot found in such perfect balance, in such complete interaction; nowhere else are they clothed in language so weighty with thought or so glorified by imagination. But it is in the determination of the catastrophes that the pbilosophical supremacy of the Tragedies most appears, as it is from these that critics who find evidence of pessimism in Shakespeare produce their proof. “Here," they say, pointing to the fifth act of King Lear, “here, at least, Shakespeare loses faith; bere good and bad go down together in indiscriminate disaster.” But so to observe is, surely, to lose sight of the most profound distinction running through these plays, the distinction between the spiritual and the physical. From Romeo and Juliet to Coriolanus it is clear that Shakespeare hands over to natural and social law the bodies and temporal fortunes of good and bad alike, and such law is permitted its unrelenting sway. But it is equally clear that he regards the spiritual life of his creations as by no means involved in this welter of suffering and death. Occasionally, as in Macbeth, the bero's spiritual career runs at the end parallel to his worldly fortune; more often, as in Othello or Lear, the moment of physical disaster witnesses a moral purgation, a spiritual triumpb; always it is possible to discern two lines of interest, two kinds of value, two clearly distinguished spheres of existence.
For the lack of correspondence between these two lines of action, the absence in Tragedy of any control of worldly happiness in the interest of the good, he attempts no explanation. For he is not concerned to construct a philosophical system, to preach a gospel. Even the all-pervading distinction just set forth is not preached or argued. It is merely implied because no treatment of the greater issues of human life could be at once true and profound without this implication. Thus this limitation, as it has been regarded by those who would have the poet an explicit philosopher, is no limitation at all
, but the mark of his allegiance to the true artistic ideal, the proof that he played his own game according to its own rules, and devoted himself with unparalleled disinterestedness, unparalleled range and profundity of insight, to the picturing of things
as they are.
W. A. N.