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The period during which Shakspere lived was an age of intellectual ferment in many parts of the world. In Italy we find Tasso, the epic poet; to the north of Tasso were Galileo and Kepler, the astronomers; in France, Montaigne was becoming the most famous of essayists, and Molière was soon to begin his career as the most gifted writer of comedy; in Spain, the world-renowned Cervantes was creating the immortal Don Quixote. We are told that it was during this same period that India, China, Japan, and Persia enjoyed a most productive intellectual activity.
"The England of Shakspere! The phrase suggests a train of associations that kindle the imagination. The age of literature, war, conquest, adventure, and achievement. The era of Edmund Spenser, 'called from faeryland to struggle 'gainst dark ways'; of Sir Philip Sidney, the scholar, the courtier, the gentleman; of Sir Walter Raleigh, author, knight, and explorer; of Bacon, 'the wisest, brightest, meanest of mankind.' It is the time when in the Golden Hind Drake is circumnavigating the globe; when Hawkins is exploring the Indies, and Frobisher is becoming the hero of the Northwest passage; the age of marvellous tales told by intrepid explorers and adventurers returning from America, a land whose fountains renewed youth, whose rivers flowed over sands of gold. It is the era of English sea-dogs pillaging Spanish provinces in spite of imperial manifestos above all, it is the age of the Spanish Armada.
"To recall what this means it is necessary to remember that Spain was the great dominating empire of the sixteenth century. Philip II, the Duke of Alva, the horrors of the Spanish inquisition, condemn Spain's power in this period. But one midsummer morn all England awoke to the glorious news that the Invincible Armada was not invincible. England had triumphed, and now for the first time national life dreamed of the possibility of leadership in the great game of world-politics. The atmosphere was electric with new life. In rural England along lanes flanked with green hedges Englishmen walked with bosoms swelling with new pride, in bustling London vigorous burghers strode the city's streets with hearts pulsating with new warmth, and everywhere the eyes of all Englishmen flashed with new fire."*
That Shakspere was deeply interested in English history is attested by his ten English historical plays, ranging from King John to Henry VIII. His patriotism is not marked by the pro
* Chubb's Stories of Authors.
duction of any particular poem, such as can be found in Burns or Scott, but by the spirit pervading these plays. Yet there is a passage from the speech of the dying Gaunt in Richard II that could have been written only by an intense patriot. These lines breathe the very fire of patriotism:
"This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This land of such dear souls, this dear, dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world."
His Greatness.-One can appreciate the preeminence of Shakspere only after an extensive acquaintance with both his writings and those of the great literary masters of many times and many lands. Eschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Homer, Vergil, Dante, Milton, Goethe, Schiller, and Molière are also great names; but the opinion has been growing that Shakspere is the supreme genius of all. Until the student has read widely and gained that maturity of judgment which entitles him to an independent opinion, he is obliged to take the estimate of the critics. One might without indulging in subtle distinctions name a score of qualities which have combined to characterize the excellence of this poet, but it will suffice to name a few:
A. His Insight into Life.It must always be remembered that literature is a reflection of life; that to write well means more than ability to string words like glittering beads upon a golden strand. Shakspere saw beneath the surface; he penetrated into the heart of humanity. He was not deceived by the pomp of courts and the glory of war. His kings and queens have a humanity which in no respect differs from that of his vagabonds and paupers. He may make mistakes in history, he may have his Roman characters act like London citizens, but he makes no mistakes in his interpretation of life. His characters are live
men and women in whom we are interested, not because of their costume or dialect, but because in them we see ourselves and our neighbors. Fashion changes, but the human heart retains its primitive loves and hates. Shakspere is the revealer and interpreter of these abiding and eternal emotions.
2. His Morality.-His plays breathe so wholesome a tone that a distinguished English clergyman, Canon Farrar, once said that next to the teachings of Holy Writ, England's greatest teacher has been the poetry of William Shakspere. On the other hand, Dr. Johnson wrote that Shakspere "seems to write without any moral purpose." Johnson evidently wanted more moralizing in the plays; he failed to see that the drama can be eminently moral without moralizing. Shakspere's dramas are moral because they illustrate the inexorable law that whatsoever a man sows, that shall he also reap. His philosophic grasp of reality is such that we see this world of ours not as an insubstantial fabric created and controlled by chance, but a world of order and law.
To be a creator is to be like God, godlike. It is the peculiar characteristic of all great creators that they are reverent seekers after truth. The irreverent are second-rate men. The Homers, the Davids, the Dantes, the Michelangelos, and the Shaksperes are worshippers and not mockers. To be a great moral teacher does not mean that the artist becomes a conscious preacher of morality. The true artist, like nature, teaches not by pedagogical precept, but by the revelation of beauty. Prosaic and obtrusive morality is an aesthetic fraud; it is tediousness that kills art. Our poet has seen that beauty and truth are one; in the alembic of his genius the elements are fused into unity. We arise from our reading of the great tragedies with the feeling that the poet is a high priest who has approached the burning bush with feet unshod.
3. His Optimism.— Though his tragedies are terrible in their gloom and despair, he does not become a pessimist. In the conflict between the Ormuzd and Ahriman, God and the Demon, the supremacy of evil is never permanent. Sorrow may endure for
the night, but joy cometh in the morning. He knows that right must prevail, that
When the curtain goes down in Julius Caesar it falls upon a Roman world restored to order. The assassination of Caesar is but an episode in a world of order. As the play ends we feel that under the new régime of Augustus an empire magnificent and world-wide in influence is to be established. In Macbeth we find another world in chaos, but when the curtain falls chaos has given place to cosmos, for Shakspere knew that treason and murder are not the forces that have wrought the foundations of the social structure. Crime is an episode. The main currents of life are peaceful. The storm is but a brief interruption in the day of sunshine.
"So profound was Shakspere's conviction of this great law, that, in the interest of philosophic truth, and regardless of artistic effect, he can never refrain from giving a hint of the world's recuperative powers. Instead of dropping his curtain upon a scene of hopeless gloom and discouragement, he makes it fall upon an orderly world. This instinct is based on a philosophic conception and is in harmony with the 'law within the law.""
4. His Concreteness.- By this we mean that instead of writing about life, he gives us life in the forms of acting men and women. Shakspere never stops to say, "Now, this is what I really think of the matter." He has created scores of men and women who have an individuality of their own. There are over two hundred and fifty distinct characters in his dramas; and in making this count the strictly subordinate characters are omitted. Thackeray has but forty, and Dickens one hundred and two, while George Eliot has one hundred and seven.* Falstaff, Hamlet, Touchstone, Caliban, Puck, Prospero, Brutus, Horatio, Portia, Shylock, Cordelia, Polonius, Desdemona, Othello, Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Rosalind, and Hotspur are names that stand for
* Prof. C. F. Johnson in Elements of Literary Criticism.
reality. They do not seem to be mere creations of the imagination. Hamlet, concerning whom as much has been written as about Napoleon, seems as real as the historic Corsican.
5. Range and Variety. - The greatest men are characterized by broad sympathies. Shakspere is preeminent in his ability to portray all phases of life without prejudice. He is as great in comedy as in tragedy. His sinners are drawn with as much care, with almost as much love, as his men and women of valor and purity. The unmoral Falstaff, the beastly Caliban receive the same careful and impartial treatment as is bestowed upon the sensitive Hamlet and the filial Cordelia. It is as though the dramatist said: "Here is life as I see it; here are the men and women as they walk to and fro on this little planet; saint and sinner, prince and pauper, hero and coward; I judge them not, I merely show them as they are."
His style is as varied as his thought. Although his early manner had the faults of his age, as he matured he became the master of all forms of expression. The fanciful conceits and involved expressions give place to a directness and simplicity that characterize a great soul. He could make language ring with the music of the forest bird and then again roar and thunder like the swelling tones of a cathedral organ. Listen to the crisp ring of his monosyllables in
"I cannot tell what you and other men
Think of this life, but, for my single self,
I had as lief not be as live to be
In awe of such a thing as I myself."
And then contrast the sonorous polysyllabic strain in Macbeth —
"Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red."
6. His Passion and Sanity.-Some poets, like Shelley and Burns, have souls that are aflame with indignation at the wrongs of society; others, like Pope, are eminently sane and cool. They