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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
William Shakespeare (1564–1616)
William Shakespeare the Poet by Edward Dowden (1843–1913)
 
IF an Academy of Immortals chosen from all ages could be formed, there is no doubt that a plébiscite of the English-speaking peoples would send Shakespeare as their chief representative to that august assembly. He alone could speak on their behalf of life and its joys in the presence of Homer, of death and its mysteries in Dante’s presence; he alone could respond to the wisdom of Goethe with a broader and a sunnier wisdom; he alone could match the laughter of Molière with a laughter as human and more divine. There is a grace in literature which corresponds to the theological grace of charity: he who loses his life in his vision of the world shall save it; he who does not clamor, or assert himself, or thrust forward his individuality, yet is forever operating over the entire field of nature like light,—illuminating, interpreting, kindling, fructifying,—he it is who while remaining unknown is of all men best known. We are familiar with the thews and bulk of Shakespeare’s great contemporary Ben Jonson; we stand in his shadow and are oppressed by his magnitude; we know him as a huge and impressive, if somewhat ungainly, object. Shakespeare disappears from view, because he plays around us like the intangible air and sunshine, and has entered into us and become a portion of our own life.  1
  He came at a fortunate time, when it was possible to view the world in a liberal spirit, free from the harshness of the ascetic and the narrowness of the sectary. A mediæval Shakespeare might have found that seriousness implied severity, or that mirth meant revolt and mockery; he might have been forced to regard the mundane and the supermundane as hostile powers; he might have staggered under a burden of theology, or have thrown it off and become militant and aggressive in his vindication of the natural man. Had he lived when Milton lived, he could hardly have stood neutral between two parties which divided the people of England: yet transformed to a political combatant, Shakespeare must have given to party something that was meant for mankind; the deep human problems which interest him might have been replaced or obscured by temporary questions urgent for the moment, by theories of government, of popular rights, of ecclesiastical organization, of ceremony and ordinance, of Divine decrees, free-will, foreknowledge absolute, as formulated in dogma. Born in the eighteenth century, Shakespeare would have breathed with difficulty: for the higher enthusiasm of poetry, the age of Addison was like an exhausted receiver; the nobler wisdom of Elizabethan days had cooled and contracted into good sense. Even as a contemporary of Byron and of Wordsworth he would have been at a disadvantage: the poetry of social movement was turbid with passion or doctrinaire in its theories of revolution; serenity was attainable, as Wordsworth proved, but it was to be attained rather through the spirit of contemplation than by dealing with the insurgent forces of modern life.  2
  In the age of Bacon and Spenser and Shakespeare, three great streams, afterwards to be parted, had united to form a broad and exultant flood. The new ideals of the Renaissance, the new sense of the worth of life on earth, the new delight in beauty, had been deepened and enriched by the seriousness of the Reformation; the sense of national power, the pride of country,—suddenly enhanced by the overthrow of the naval might of Papal Spain,—had coalesced with these. For the imagination, the glories of Italy and of ancient Greece and Rome; for the conscience, the words of Hebrew prophets and singers and Christian teachers; for the heart,
  “This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This other Eden, demi-Paradise,…
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.”
During one brief period, Englishmen discovered that gravity might be gay and gayety might be serious, while both gayety and gravity were supported by an energy of will which enabled them to do great things; they could be stern without moroseness, and could laugh aloud because such laughter was a part of strength, and of their strenuous acceptance of the world as good.
  3
  It was a fortunate moment for a dramatic artist. The epic breadth and the moral purport of the mediæval religious drama had not been lost; but they had submitted to the new and happier forms of Renaissance literature. Italian and classical models had served to make tragedy and comedy shapely, organic, vertebrate. But the pedantry of scholars had not suppressed the instincts of popular pleasure. The spectators of the theatre included both a cultured minority, and the ruder mass that desired strong appeals to pity and terror, and a frank invitation to mirth. The court favored but did not dominate the theatre; the stage remained essentially popular, but it showed how a common pleasure could be ennobled and refined. Shakespeare’s predecessors had prepared the way for him in tragedy, comedy, and chronicle play. He received from Marlowe that majestic instrument of poetic expression, blank verse; it was his triumph to discover in time how to extend the keyboard, and to touch its various stops. The years from 1590 to 1610 were the high midsummer of the English drama, when the fruitage was maturing from its early crudities, and was still untouched by that overripeness which streaked and spotted the later Jacobean and Caroline drama, and gave it the sick-sweet odor of decay. Nor as yet, in the struggle for existence between literary species, had the novel entered into competition with the drama. When it did so, in the eighteenth century, the high tragedy of the age was Richardson’s ‘Pamela,’ the most genial comedy was Fielding’s ‘Tom Jones.’  4
  These advantages Shakespeare gained from his environment and from the moment when he appeared; all else that contributed to his work may be assigned to his own genius. If he became the most learned man of his generation, the most learned man of all generations, in one department,—the lore of the passions,—it was not because he was born in this age or in that. It was because he possessed the genius of discovery; he directed his prow across the voyageable ocean of the human heart, and from a floating weed he could infer America. Each man contains all humanity in his own breast; the microcosm exhibits the macrocosm in little: but most men cherish what is peculiar to themselves, what is individual; and if they express themselves in song they are apt to tell of their private joys and griefs: we capture from them what is theirs, and appropriate it to our own uses. Shakespeare used his private experience as a chink through which he saw the world. Did he feel a momentary pang of jealous affection? There was the opening, as of an eyelet-hole, through which to discover the vast spasms of Othello’s anguish. An experience no larger than a mustard-seed, a sense for all the obscure affinities of things, imagination with its dilating and its divining powers—these were the sources of ‘Hamlet’ and ‘King Lear,’ rather than Saxo Grammaticus and Holinshed. As Goethe in a leaf could recognize the type of plant life and start upon his research into all its metamorphoses, so Shakespeare, discovering in what seems insignificant the type of a passion, could trace it through its varieties by the divining power of the imagination. He observed himself and he observed the world, and each served to interpret the other. Not that which bulked largest in his external life was necessarily of most significance for his art: that which contained a vital germ, to be fostered by his imagination, was of capital importance. The attempts that have been made to connect the creations of such a man of genius as Shakespeare with incidents in his career are often labor spent in vain: what looks considerable from an external point of view may have been an aggregation of insignificant accidents—mere dross of life; the true career was invisible: some momentary joy or pain, of which we shall never hear, may have involved, as in a seed, the blossoms and the fruit of art. We all contain within us the ova of a spiritual population,—philosophers, saints, heroes, lovers, humorists, fantasticoes, traitors, cowards, assassins,—else Shakespeare were unintelligible to us: but with us the germs remain mere protoplasm; with the man of genius they may mature to a Hamlet, a Jaques, a Romeo, a Rosalind, an Imogen, a Cleopatra.  5
  Shakespeare’s outward life—of which we know more than of the life of any other Elizabethan dramatist, except perhaps Ben Jonson—shows him to us as passionate and as eminently prudent. His marriage at nineteen with a woman probably uneducated, several years his elder and of inferior social position, was rash; he fled from Stratford under a cloud, to avoid the consequences of a youthful escapade; if we accept as historical the story outlined in the ‘Sonnets,’ we must believe that he was capable of extravagant devotion to a disloyal friend, and was for a time, against his better judgment, the victim of feminine wiles and of his own intemperate heart. But Shakespeare returned to Stratford, wealthy, honored, and beloved; he did not wreck his life, like some of his fellow-dramatists, on the rocks or quicksands of London; he never gave offense to the authorities as Jonson and others did, by indiscreet references to public persons or events; he had no part in the quarrels of authors; he neither lavished praises on his contemporaries nor stung them with epigram and satire; he neither bribed nor bullied; his amiability and high breeding earned him the epithet “gentle”; he desired the ease and freedom which worldly substance brings, and by pursuing his own way with steadfastness and good sense he attained his object. Below his bust in Stratford Church he is characterized as “in judgment a Nestor, in genius a Socrates.”  6
  He lived in two worlds,—the extended world of the imagination, and the contracted world of his individual material life. Which was the more real? Perhaps the positive, material life was the dream:
                  “We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.”
But he would dream the dream well. And is it after all a dream? Was it not something to possess his soul in sanity, to dismiss his airy spirits, to break his magic staff, and moving amid his fellow-townsmen, by the side of his wife and daughters, to be only a man? Only a man, but enjoying within himself the light and wisdom won through his great adventures of the imagination. His book of magic, not sunk like Prospero’s below the waves deeper than ever plummet sounded, was for all the world. His personal life was for himself and those whom he loved. And even for his art, was it not well that he should be attentive to the lesser things of worldly wisdom? He had a vast burden of thoughts and visions to carry, and he must needs carry it steadily. Were it better if he had confused his art with the feverish and mean anxieties that attend on reckless living? No: let the two lives aid each other; let his life as an imaginative creator effect a secondary and subordinate purpose in rendering his material life secure and substantial; let his life in the positive world be such as to set free, rather than pull down or embarrass, his life of the imagination. He might play the two games together, and play both with success.
  7
  What moved within the great brain and the great heart of the prosperous Stratford gentleman,—more deep and wise perhaps than all his tragedies and comedies,—we shall never know: it was a matter for himself, and he kept his secret with the taciturnity of Nature. But we can follow his adventures in the realms of fancy. In these also there was a wise economy of power: he did not dash into deep water, as has often been the way with youthful poets, before he had learnt to swim. At first he was content to take lessons in his craft: he put forth no ambitious manifestoes; he did not pose as a leader of revolt, or belabor the public, in Ben Jonson’s fashion, with a doctrine of dramatic reform; he did not read lessons in ethics to his age: he began by trying to please, he ended by trying to please in a nobler manner; he taught a generation which had laughed at ‘The Comedy of Errors’ how to smile with Prospero in ‘The Tempest’; he taught a generation which had snuffed up the reek of blood from ‘Titus Andronicus’ how, with pity lost in beautiful pride and sense of victory, to gaze upon the dead body of Cordelia. The great work of his life was to show how pleasure can be converted into a noble exercise of the soul; how mirth can be enriched by wisdom; how the primitive brute cry of pain may be transformed into a pure voice bearing a part in the majestic symphony of the world’s mourners; how the terror that arises at the sight of violated law may be purified from gross alarms, and appear as one of the dread pillars of order which sustain the fabric of God’s world.  8
  The English people need, perhaps in a special degree, wise schooling in the pleasures. They are not lacking in seriousness; but they are prone to leave their pleasures pawing in the mire like Milton’s half-created beasts, or to avert their eyes sourly and walk past in self-complacent respectability. Even Emerson, who uttered admirable sentences in his discourse on Shakespeare as the representative poet, laments the fact that he employed his lofty powers so meanly, “leading an obscure and profane life, using his genius for the public amusement;” “he converted the elements that waited on his command into entertainments; he was master of the revels to mankind.” But what if Shakespeare proved that the revels may be sacred mysteries? The service of joy in such art as his, at its highest, is something more than amusement. In Sandro Botticelli’s ‘Nativity’ the angels circle above the manger in the gracefulest of dances; but are they only amusing themselves? In the old Italian pictures of Paradise, the celestial company are not engaged in attending to a sermon on theology or a lecture on ethics: they are better employed in touching their harps or breathing through loud uplifted trumpets. Shakespeare’s highest work does not resemble this “undisturbed song of pure concent” sung before “the sapphire-colored throne”; but it expresses the music of the earth—with adagio and allegro, discords resolved into harmony, imperious suspensions, rain of laughters, rain of tears—more adequately than the work of any other master. Does it lessen his service to the world that such work is also a beautiful play?  9
  Shakespeare’s attainment was not snatched in haste: it was won through long and strenuous endeavor. In his early comedies he moves brightly over the surface of life. ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ is a young man’s good-humored and confident satire of the follies and affectations of the day. How are we to learn our lesson, he asks, in the high-school of the world? Not through the pedantries of erudition, not through the fantastical subtleties of romance, not through a high-flying philosophy which disdains the plain old lore of mother Earth: such methods will only make ingenious fools. There is a better way, simple in appearance, yet really needing all our strength and skill: to accept the teaching of life itself in a manly spirit, to let both head and heart task themselves in studying the book of nature; to laugh and love; but also to temper the laughter and joy of youth by acquaintance with the sorrows of the world. Biron, the courageous jester, with seriousness beneath his mirth, is dismissed for a twelvemonth to try how mocks and flouts will sound among the speechless sick and groaning wretches of a hospital. He will laugh at the end of his period of probation, but it will be with a wiser, a braver, and a kindlier laughter. He will love the better for a year’s instruction in the lessons of pain. “This side is Hiems, Winter, this Ver, the Spring”: the song of the cuckoo and the song of the owl are alike songs of the earth; let us cheerfully attend to both.  10
  Such was Shakespeare’s starting-point. He was a scholar, in love with the book of life, and in time he would understand its meaning. But as he turned the pages he found obscure and awful things, and it may be that for a while his vision grew perplexed. When ‘Measure for Measure’ was written, it seems as if he moved in some valley of the shadow of sin and death, amid encompassing gloom, and could sustain his courage only by the presence of strength, severe and virginal but not joyous, as seen in the person of Isabella. In ‘Troilus and Cressida,’—the comedy of disillusion,—he gazes on life with a bitter irony, finding young love a fraud, and pretentious heroes only vulgar egoists beneath their glittering armor: if there is virtue anywhere, it must be sought in such worldly wisdom as that of Ulysses; the penetration and insight of a Machiavelli is indeed a kind of virtue amid sham splendors, mercenary wiles, and the deceits of sensual passion.  11
  But Shakespeare could not remain content with the poor philosophy of disenchantment. Vain opinions, flattering hopes, false valuations, self-deceptive imaginations,—he had come to know them all; but he could not accept as final the shrunken wisdom of such a discovery. Nor would he retreat to the untenable refuge of a shallow optimism. He went forward courageously to a deeper inquisition of evil. He ceased for a time from comedy: one great tragedy—‘Julius Cæsar,’ ‘Hamlet,’ ‘Othello,’ ‘Lear,’ ‘Macbeth,’ ‘Antony and Cleopatra,’ ‘Coriolanus,’ ‘Timon of Athens’—succeeded another. And searching profoundly into the mystery of evil, he rediscovered, and in a deeper way than ever before, the mystery of good. Cordelia suffers a shameful death; but she has given her life as a free gift, to win a victory of love. Othello, in the blinding simoon of passion, has struck her whom he best loved, and Desdemona lies on the bed “pale as her smock”: but her spirit has conquered the malignant spirit of Iago; and Othello enters into a great calm as he pronounces the doom of a justiciary against himself, and falls where his lips can give his wronged wife the last kiss of union.  12
  Into such a calm, but serener and more bright, Shakespeare himself passed after he had completed his studies of terror and pity. The serenity of the latest dramas, beautiful romances rather than comedies,—the plays of Prospero and Imogen and Hermione,—has in it something of the pellucid atmosphere of early autumn days; the air is bright and transparent, but below its calm there is a touch of surrender and detachment: the harvest is well-nigh gathered; the songs of spring and the vivifying midsummer ardors are withdrawn: yet the peace that is present is a vivid peace; and Shakespeare in these plays sees the spectacle of life—its joys of youth, its victories of mature wisdom and the patience of hope—with a sympathy deeper and more pure than that of his earlier exultant years:—
          “Uranian clearness, come!
Give me to breathe in peace and in surprise
The light-thrilled ether of your rarest skies,
        Till inmost absolution start
      The welling in the grateful eyes,
        The heaving in the heart.”
These are the dramas of reconcilement; like the masque of his great enchanter, “harmonious charmingly.” It is as if Shakespeare had solved the riddle at last, had found the secret; or not having found it, but assured that its meaning is good, could be content to wait.
  13
 
 
CONTENTS · GENERAL INDEX · SONGS & LYRICS · BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY
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