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LESSON 25. WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE. “ The greatest dramatist of the world now took up the work of Marlowe, and in twenty-eight years made the drama represent the whole of human life. He was born, it is thought, April 23, 1564, the son of a comfortable burgess of Stratford-on-Avon. While he was still
young, his father fell into poverty, and an interrupted education left the son an inferior scholar. He had 'small Latin and less Greek.' But by dint of genius and by living in a society in which all sorts of information were attainable, he became an accomplished man. The story told of his deerstealing in Charlecote woods is without proof, but it is likely that his youth was wild and passionate. At nineteen, he married Ann Hathaway, seven years older than himself, and was probably unhappy with her. For this reason or from poverty or from the driving of the genius that led him to the stage, he left Stratford about 1586–7, and went to London at the age of twenty-two, and, falling in with Marlowe, Greene and the rest, became an actor and a play-wright, and may have lived their unrestrained and riotous life for some years.
HIS FIRST PERIOD.-It is probable that before leaving Stratford he had sketched a part at least of his Venus and Adonis. It is full of the country sights and sounds, of the ways of birds and animals, such as he saw when wandering in Charlecote woods. Its rich and overladen poetry and its warm coloring made him, when it was published, 1591-3, at once the favorite of men like Lord Southampton, and lifted him into fame. But before that date he had done work for the stage by touching up old plays and writing new ones. We seem to trace his ‘prentice hand’ in many dramas of the time, but the first he is usually thought to have retouched is Titus Andronicus, and some time after, the First Part of Henry VI.
Love's Labor's Lost, the first of his original plays, in which
he quizzed and excelled the Euphuists in wit, was followed by the rapid farce of the Comedy of Errors. Out of these frolics of intellect and action he passed into pure poetry in the Midsummer Night's Dream, and mingled into fantastic beauty the classic legend, the mediæval fairyland, and the clownish life of the English mechanic. Italian story then laid its charm upon him, and the Two Gentlemen of Verona preceded the southern glow of passion in Romeo and Juliet, in which he first reached tragic power. They complete, with Love's Labor's Won, afterwards recast as All's Well That Ends Well, the love plays of his early period. We may, perhaps, add to them the second act of an older play, Edward III. We should certainly read along with them, as belonging to the same passionate time, his Rape of Lucrece, a poem finally printed in 1594, one year later than the Venus and Adonis.
The same poetic succession we have traced in the poets is now found in Shakespeare. The patriotic feeling of England, also represented in Marlowe and Peele, now seized on him, and he turned from love to begin his great series of historical plays with Richard II., 1593-4. Richard III. followed quickly. To introduce it and to complete the subject, he recast the Second and Third Parts of Henry VI. (written by some unknown authors), and ended his first period with King John ; five plays in a little more than two years.
HIS SECOND PERIOD, 1596—1602.—In the Merchant of Venice Shakespeare reached entire mastery over his art. A mingled woof of tragic and comic threads is brought to its highest point of color when Portia and Shylock meet in court. Pure comedy followed in his retouch of the old Taming of the Shrew, and all the wit of the world, mixed with noble history, met next in the three comedies of Falstaff, the First and Second Parts of Henry IV. and the Merry Wives of Windsor. The historical plays were then closed with Henry V.; a splendid dramatic song to the glory of England.
The Globe theatre, in which he was one of the proprietors,
was built in 1599. In the comedies he wrote for it, Shakespeare turned to write of love again, not to touch its deeper passion as before but to play with it in all its lighter phases. The flashing dialogue of Much Ado About Nothing was followed by the far-off forest world of As You Like It, where the time fleets carelessly,' and Rosalind's character is the play. Amid all its gracious lightness steals in a new element, and the melancholy of Jaques is the first touch we have of the older Shakespeare who had “gained his experience, and whose experience had made him sad.' As yet it was but a touch ; Twelfth Night shows no trace of it, though the play that followed, All's Well That Ends Well, again strikes a sadder note. We find this sadness fully grown in the later sonnets, which are said to have been finished about 1602. They were published in 1609.
Shakespeare's life changed now, and his mind changed with it. He had grown wealthy during this period and famous, and was loved by society. He was the friend of the Earls of Southampton and Essex, and of William Herbert, Lord Pembroke. The Queen patronized him; all the best literary society was his own. He had rescued his father from poverty, bought the best house in Stratford and much land, and was a man of wealth and comfort. Suddenly all his life seems to have
His best friends fell into ruin, Essex perished on the scaffold, Southampton went to the Tower, Pembroke was banished from the Court; he may himself, as some have thought, have been concerned in the rising of Essex. Added to this, we may conjecture, from the imaginative pageantry of the sonnets, that he had unwisely loved, and been betrayed in his love by a dear friend. Disgust of his profession as an actor and public and private ill weighed heavily on him, and in darkness of spirit, though still clinging to the business of the theatre, he passed from comedy to write of the sterner side of the world, to tell the tragedy of mankind.
His Third Period, 1602—1608, begins with the last days
of Queen Elizabeth. It contains all the great tragedies, and opens with the fate of Hamlet, who felt, like the poet himself, that 'the time was out of joint.' Hamlet, the dreamer, may well represent Shakespeare as he stood aside from the crash that overwhelmed his friends, and thought on the changing world. The tragi-comedy of Measure for Measure was next written, and is tragic in thought throughout. Julius Cæsar, Othello, Macbeth, Lear, Troilus and Cressida (finished from an incomplete work of his youth), Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Timon (only in part his own) were all written in these five years. The darker sins of men, the unpitying fate which slowly gathers round and falls on men, the avenging wrath of conscience, the cruelty and punishment of weakness, the treachery, lust, jealousy, ingratitude, madness of men, the follies of the great, and the fickleness of the mob are all, with a thousand other varying moods and passions, painted, and felt as his own while he painted them, during this stern time.
HIS FOURTH PERIOD, 1608-1613.-As Shakespeare wrote of these things, he passed out of them, and his last days are full of the gentle and loving calm of one who has known sin and sorrow and fate but has risen above them into peaceful victory. Like his great contemporary, Bacon, he left the world and his own evil time behind him, and with the same quiet dignity sought the innocence and stillness of country life. The country breathes through all the dramas of this time. The flowers Perdita gathers in Winter's Tale and the frolic of the sheep-shearing he may have seen in the Stratford meadows; the song of Fidele in Cymbeline is written by one who already feared no more the frown of the great nor slander nor censure rash, and was looking forward to the time when men should say of him
'Quiet consummation have;
And renowned be thy grave!' Shakespeare probably left London in 1609, and lived in the house he had bought at Stratford-on-Avon. He was reconciled, it is said, to his wife, and the plays he writes speak of domestic peace and forgiveness. The story of Marina, which he left unfinished, and which two later writers expanded into the play of Pericles, is the first of his closing series of dramas. The Two Noble Kinsmen of Fletcher, a great part of which is .now, on doubtful grounds, I think, attributed to Shakespeare, and in which the poet sought the inspiration of Chaucer, would belong to this period. Cymbeline, Winter's Tale, and the Tempest bring his history up to 1612, and in the next year he closed his poetic life by writing, with Fletcher, Henry VIII. For three years he kept silence, and then, on the 23d of April, 1616, the day he reached the age of fifty-two as is supposed, he died.
HIS WORK.—We can only guess with regard to Shakespeare's life; we can only guess with regard to his character. It has been tried to find out what he was from his sonnets and from his plays, but every attempt seems to be a failure. We cannot lay our hand on anything and say for certain that it was spoken by Shakespeare out of his own character. The most personal thing in all his writings is one that has scarcely been noticed. It is the Epilogue to the Tempest; and if it be, as is most probable, the last thing he ever wrote, then its cry for forgiveness, its tale of inward sorrow, only to be relieved by prayer, give us some dim insight into how the silence of those three years was passed; while its declaration of his aim in writing, 'which was to please,'—the true definition of an artist's aim-should make us very cautious in our efforts to define his character from his works. Shakespeare made men and women whose dramatic action on each other, and towards a catastrophe, was intended to please the public, not to reveal himself.
No commentary on his writings, no guesses about his life or character are worth much which do not rest on this canon as their foundation—What he did, thought, learned, and felt, he did, thought, learned, and felt as an artist. And he was