Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
William Shakespeare (1564–1616)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Ernest Hunter Wright (1882–1968)
WE know fairly little about Shakespeare’s life because in an age when biographies were considerably more rare than epics no one who knew the poet was inspired to leave us an account of him. Yet we know relatively much—more than is known of almost any of his fellow-dramatists—because in the centuries that have ensued a thousand hands have been diligent in turning over documents that might disclose a fact or two about the master. Out of these researches there has come a body of fact mingled with tradition, which, though it is all too scanty to explain the poet’s spiritual progress, or to answer many of the questions that arise about his personality, is still sufficient to tell a fairly continuous story of his passage through life.  1
  William Shakespeare was baptized, presumably a few days after his birth, at Stratford on April 26th, 1564. His father, John Shakespeare, is described in tradition as a glover and also as a butcher, and seems actually to have been a general dealer in farm products. In 1557 he had made a seemingly propitious marriage with Mary Arden, who had brought him considerable property and who bore him eight children, of whom William was the third and the eldest to survive. For some five years before marriage and for fifteen or more thereafter the record of the father is that of a man prosperous in business and in civic affairs. In particular he advanced through various municipal offices until he reached the high local position of bailiff, or mayor, of Stratford in 1568. But not long after that date his fortunes evidently waned, and for some twenty years after 1577 his record is mainly one of debts and mortgages and lawsuits.  2
  Though without proof of the fact, we have good reason to presume that up to about 1577 William Shakespeare attended the grammar school at Stratford and received the discipline in Latin authors there prescribed. But it is believed that around the year mentioned he was taken out of school, owing to his father’s pecuniary embarrassment, and put to work. There is a story that he was apprenticed to a butcher, his father or another, and that “When he killed a calf he would do it in a high style and make a speech.” But nothing is certain about him before he reached the age of eighteen. Then, in 1582, occurs the record of a license for his marriage to Anne Hathaway. The evidences indicate that Anne Hathaway, who was apparently the daughter of a farmer in the nearby village of Shottery, was eight years older than Shakespeare, that the marriage was hurried by her friends, and that the Shakespeare family felt no pride in it. The haste of the bride’s friends seems to be explained by the birth of Susanna, her first child, within six months after the wedding. The twins, Hamnet and Judith, were born two years later, in 1585; and this is the last positive record of Shakespeare before we hear of him in London. Whether he engaged in the deer-stealing escapade, famous in tradition and possibly referred to by Shakespeare himself in the opening lines of the ‘Merry Wives of Windsor,’ is open to some question; whether this had anything to do with his leaving Stratford, to still more.  3
  Though the exact date is uncertain, it is thought that he went up to London about 1586. There is one story that he found work holding horses in front of the theatre, and another that he secured employment as a call-boy within the building. But again, nothing is sure until 1592; then the records inform us that he has become both an actor and a playwright, and is rising rapidly enough to arouse envy. In that year the dramatist Robert Greene, ending a wretched life with an untimely death, left behind him a pamphlet called ‘Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit,’ in which he gives warning to three of his fellow-dramatists to beware of plagiarists, and among other vituperative gems pours out the following:
          “Yes, trust them not; for there is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tiger’s heart wrapt in a Player’s hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you; and being an absolute Johannes Factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.”
Now in an old play called ‘The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York’ there occurs the line,
  “Oh tiger’s heart wrapt in a woman’s hide!”
and in the third part of ‘Henry VI.,’ a play based on the ‘True Tragedy’ and printed in the Folio as Shakespeare’s, this line is repeated. It is evidently this line that Greene parodies in his “Tiger’s heart wrapt in a player’s hide,” and the parody is significant coming in connection with a charge of plagiarism. Furthermore, “Shake-scene” is pretty obviously a play on the name of Shakespeare and his new occupation on the stage. The whole passage thus shows that by 1592 Shakespeare was known as an actor, and that whatever else he had written, he had finished his share of the three plays of ‘Henry VI.’; also that his success as dramatist was great enough to provoke the jealousy of an older playwright.
  At least two men having resented Greene’s attack, the dramatist Chettle, who had prepared Greene’s pamphlet for the press, took occasion to make apology for certain passages in it later in the year when he came to publish his own ‘Kind-Harts Dream.’ And it is very likely, though not certain, that the following part of the apology refers to Shakespeare.
          “With neither of them that take offense was I acquainted, and with one of them I care not if I never be. The other, whom at that time I did not so much spare as since I wish I had, for that as I have moderated the heat of living writers, and might have used my own discretion,—especially in such a case, the author being dead,—that I did not, I am as sorry, as if the original fault had been my fault, because myself have seen his demeanor no less civil, than he excellent in the quality he professes: besides, divers of worship have reported his uprightness in dealing, which argues his honesty, and his facetious grace in writing, that approves his art.”
The character here outlined is so like that given to Shakespeare by other writers later as to strengthen the belief that he is here referred to.
  So by 1592 Shakespeare is well established as an actor and a dramatist; and from now on for about twenty years he continues to produce plays at the rate of nearly two a year. The succession of these plays, in the approximate order of their composition, we may postpone for a moment in order to leave clear the record of the author’s life. In 1593 he made a bid for fame and for a patron by publishing his ‘Venus and Adonis,’ addressed in eulogistic terms to the Earl of Southampton, and in the following year he published ‘The Rape of Lucrece,’ dedicated to the same nobleman in terms noticeably more familiar and therefore perhaps indicating that Southampton had proved friendly and munificent. Without going so far as to believe the story that Southampton once gave him a thousand pounds, certainly a very large present at that time, we may with plausibility suppose that Shakespeare benefited considerably from the Earl’s influence and purse. And the two poems brought him a good measure of literary distinction. Prominence of another kind is also evinced from the record that in 1594 Shakespeare was summoned, along with some of his fellow-actors, to present two comedies before the Queen at Greenwich in the Christmas season.  6
  Then the records take us back to Stratford. During all this time the family there had seemingly continued in exiguous circumstances, and in 1596 Shakespeare’s only son, Hamnet, died. In this year, apparently, Shakespeare revisited Stratford and began to retrieve the family fortunes. For one thing, it was in this year that his father applied for a coat of arms. In a man who had been down at heels for twenty years this was an unlikely action, but for the successful poet and dramatist to desire such advancement above the none too reputable profession of acting was altogether probable, and it is therefore pretty certain that Shakespeare instigated his father’s application. The appeal was not completely successful in 1596; but three years later, upon a renewed application, the coat of arms was granted. From now on, many records testify to Shakespeare’s prosperity. In 1597 he purchased for sixty pounds the largest house in Stratford, called New Place. In 1601 he inherited from his father the two houses in Henley Street which are still shown to visitors. In 1602 he bought, for £320, more than a hundred acres of arable land with common pasture attaching to it; twenty more acres were purchased eight years later. In 1602 he acquired a cottage and garden at Stratford. In 1605 he bought for £440 the thirty-one-year remainder of a lease of the Stratford tithes, a purchase that involved him in considerable litigation. There were also investments in London. In 1613 was recorded the purchase of a house near the Blackfriars theatre. From 1615 there is a record of a suit in which he and other owners were seeking to obtain certain deeds securing their property in the precinct of Blackfriars. This is but one of many lawsuits in which Shakespeare was engaged as principal or witness, several of them brought for the recovery of small sums of money. Perhaps the most interesting is the recently discovered lawsuit from 1612. It establishes the fact that Shakespeare was lodging, possibly from 1598 to 1604, in the house of one Christopher Mountjoy, a wig-maker, at the corner of Muggle and Silver streets, near Cripplegate. He had, in 1604, arranged the marriage of Mountjoy’s daughter Mary to an apprentice named Stephen Bellott; and when Bellott brought suit over the dowry eight years later Shakespeare was an important witness. In the critical question of the amount of the dowry promised, however, his memory failed him.  7
  The other witnesses examined speak of Shakespeare with respect and esteem; and various further records refer to him as a man of probity and of substantial fortune. In 1598, for instance, a certain Abraham Sturley of Stratford writes to a relative in London referring to Shakespeare’s willingness to purchase certain property at Shottery and suggesting that he be urged to purchase the tithes. In the same year Richard Quiney, also of Stratford, writes to ask Shakespeare for thirty pounds. A year later Sturley writes to Quiney of his satisfaction at hearing that Shakespeare would assist with money needed in a project for enlarging the charter of Stratford; and a letter to Quiney from his father about the same time refers to bargaining with Shakespeare for financial aid. The exact details are not of great importance; the evident conclusion from them all is that the Stratford folk looked up to Shakespeare as a man of means whom it would be profitable to deal with.  8
  It is not difficult to account for the means at his disposal, or to estimate them roughly. From the publication of his poems he presumably had some return. During his first ten years of authorship he probably received about £10 for each play he sold to the managers, or since he averaged two plays a year, about £20 annually. In the terms of the purchasing power of American money in the early twentieth century, this would mean nearly $1,000 a year. After 1600, furthermore, the price of plays rose to about double that customary in the decade preceding, and we may therefore double Shakespeare’s income from this source. As an actor he earned a good deal more. It is estimated that up to 1599 his salary for acting must have been at least £100 a year ($5,000). And still more profitable was Shakespeare’s share in the Globe Theatre, acquired in 1599. The income from a single share in this theatre was more than £200 a year ($10,000), and Shakespeare may have held more than one share. After 1610 he was part-owner also of the Blackfriars. Now over and above all this may be counted whatever Shakespeare received from special performances at court, in possible gratuities from Southampton, and from miscellaneous sources. The total will be a substantial sum, especially after 1599; more than $20,000 a year, according to Sir Sidney Lee. So there is no mystery as to the sources of the wealth that Shakespeare had to lay out in Stratford and in London. It is gratifying to know that his work brought him fair reward in legal tender, nor need anyone esteem him less because of his canny sense in placing it where it would bring returns, or in insisting, in the courts if necessary, on the payment of what was due him.  9
  We have run ahead of chronology because it seemed desirable to state the facts about Shakespeare’s purchases and means in connection with the first records of his prosperity. We left him in London in 1594, by which time he had been successful enough as actor and dramatist to draw a violent attack upon himself, had published two poems, secured a patron, and enjoyed the distinction of a command to play before the Queen. The next important records of his rising fame come from 1598. In that year his name first appears on the title-page of a play, in the Quarto editions of ‘Richard II.’ and ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’; and from this time on, the publishers realized the value of his name or his initials on the title-pages of plays and poems, and even used the name to usher into print poems and plays that Shakespeare had no hand in. From the same year comes the ‘Palladis Tamia’ of Francis Meres, a book which, in a comparison of the English writers of the period with the authors of antiquity, included, among other flattering references to Shakespeare, the following celebrated passage:

          “As the soul of Euphorbus was thought to live in Pythagoras: so the sweet witty soul of Ovid lives in mellifluous and honey-tongued Shakespeare, witness his Venus and Adonis, his Lucrece, his sugared sonnets among his private friends, &c.
  “As Plautus and Seneca are accounted the best for comedy and tragedy among the Latins, so Shakespeare among the English is the most excellent in both kinds for the stage; for comedy, witness his Gentlemen of Verona, his Errors, his Love’s Labour’s Lost, his Love’s Labour’s Won, his Midsummer Night’s Dream, and his Merchant of Venice: for tragedy, his Richard II., Richard III., Henry IV., King John, Titus Andronicus, and his Romeo and Juliet.
  “As Epius Stolo said, that the muses would speak with Plautus’ tongue, if they would speak Latin: so I say that the muses would speak with Shakespeare’s fine filed phrase, if they would speak English.”
  Whether many men of Shakespeare’s time were conscious of the poet’s unquestionable superiority to all the other writers of the age is open to considerable doubt, but that his place at least among the first of them was generally admitted is evident from the laudatory references, too numerous to mention, to the poet and his plays from this date onward. That his pre-eminence over Ben Jonson, for instance, or Beaumont and Fletcher, was apparent to most of the people who knew them or saw their plays can hardly be asserted; that he was considered as at least their equal is more certain. Other records, though scant enough, serve to show his advancement in favor. The accession of King James in 1603 rather improved his situation and that of his company. In that year a patent was issued authorizing Shakespeare and his associates to continue their dramatic performances directly under the patronage of James, and from this time forward Shakespeare’s company is known as the “King’s Men.” On the occasion of the King’s formal entry into London, in the next year, nine actors walked in the procession, and the name of Shakespeare stands at the top of the list of them. And at least a dozen entries in the Revels Accounts record performances by Shakespeare’s company before the King. Shakespeare himself seems to have given up acting, however, after 1604.  11
  But he continued to produce plays up to about 1611. Occasionally he seems to have taken a hand in dramatic composition after that date, as in his collaboration, now generally admitted, with Fletcher in ‘Henry VIII.’ and ‘The Two Noble Kinsmen’ as late as 1612–13. But after 1611 his writing was certainly not constant, and though certain business transactions in London are recorded after that date, it seems evident that he gradually, if not definitely, retired to Stratford. He sold his shares in the theatres, and toward the end of his life he is usually referred to as “William Shakespeare, gent., of Stratford-on-Avon.” In 1613 we hear of a payment of fourteen shillings to him for supplying the motto of an heraldic shield designed and painted by the actor Burbage at the behest of the Earl of Rutland. In January, 1616, Shakespeare had his will drawn up, and after some changes he signed it two months later. On April 23rd he died.  12
  It has taken a great deal of work to determine the order in which Shakespeare’s plays were written. Apparently the dramatist himself never saw one of them through the press. By 1622 seventeen of them had got into print, some surreptitiously and others seemingly by a more regular arrangement; but these Quarto editions, as they are called, seldom help much to indicate the date of composition. The Folio of 1623 contains thirty-six plays, arranged as Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies, but without indication of the order in which the plays were written. Not until nearly two centuries later, in fact, was much light shed on the important question of the sequence of the plays—important because any discussion of Shakespeare’s development as poet, dramatist, or thinker is impossible without an approximate answer to that question. Such an answer has been sought and found by scholars of the last century or more, and in their searches several kinds of evidence have been utilized.  13
  External evidence, where it exists, is almost invariably the best. Such evidence may be found in records of the performance of a play, in quotation from it, or reference of any nature to it, in another document of known date. Thus we know that ‘The Comedy of Errors’ was written before Christmas, 1594, because there is a record of its performance at Gray’s Inn in the Christmas season of that year, but we do not know exactly how long before. Again, it is evident that the twelve plays mentioned by Meres in the passage above quoted must all have been written by 1598, the date of Meres’s own book. But Meres does not date any play more precisely than this, nor does he indicate the order of the twelve he mentions. If external evidence, however, does not always go as far as we should like, it is usually indisputable as far as it goes. And many items of external evidence have been gathered that help us to date various plays.  14
  Internal evidence is not usually so precise or so convincing as external. It is of many kinds. The purely æsthetic judgment as to the relative maturity of thought or of poetic expression, while never negligible, is perhaps the most dangerous kind of test, since it must always be to some extent, and frequently is to a very high degree, a matter of personal taste. Only less debatable, for the same reason, are verdicts based solely on maturity of dramatic construction or of character-portrayal. Of greater value is the evidence afforded by the more objective elements of style. As Shakespeare matures, for instance, the number of his allusions to classical mythology, as also the number of his quotations from or paraphrases of ancient authors, gradually decreases; so does the number and the fancifulness of his plays on words and his far-fetched figures of speech. Such things as these, exhibiting a gradual advance from artificiality toward reality, can be roughly counted and put beyond debate, for whatever they are worth. Still more arithmetical are the tests of Shakespeare’s versification, which, responding to a general movement in the dramatic blank verse of the time, changed very considerably, though gradually, between his first and last dramas. The technic of his verse seems to have been relatively unconscious with him, and so relatively regular and valuable as evidence for our purpose. Here again the advance is from formality to naturalness, from stiffness to flexibility of speech. The most telling changes that took place in his verse were those from frequency to rarity of rhyming lines and from rarity to frequency of run-on lines (lines at the end of which no pause is possible in recitation), of feminine endings (lines ending in an extra syllable beyond the conventional five feet), and of speeches ending with a broken line. To show how great a change took place from first to last it might be said that in ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost,’ perhaps his first comedy, we have over 1,000 rhymes, in ‘The Tempest,’ probably his last, only two; in ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ 18 per cent. of run-on lines, in ‘The Tempest’ 42 per cent.; in ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ 8 per cent. of feminine endings, in ‘The Tempest’ 35 per cent.; in ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ 10 per cent. of speeches ending with a broken line, in ‘The Tempest’ 85 per cent. This is of course an extreme illustration. Few plays, if any, will show an advance in all these respects over their predecessors, and some plays show evident reversions to an earlier form; there is, in a word, a general advance, not without occasional lapses, but there is no abrupt change. There is naturally some difference between two plays written about the same time but on widely differing themes, and there are anomalies that arise in certain cases from the fact that a play written in one period was revised or augmented in another. Valuable in spite of these allowances, however, metrical evidence is often sufficient to date a play, not of course in a particular year, but at least in or around a given period.  15
  From a careful interpretation of all the evidences at hand, critics have drawn up a list of the plays in their approximate order and with their approximate dates. We cannot be sure that in every case the order is exactly correct or the date precise, but we can be fairly certain that in few cases are we more than a year or two out of the way. Certainly the list is accurate enough to warrant the broad interpretation of the dramatist’s development which will follow the table of the works here inserted. The table is taken from ‘The Facts about Shakespeare,’ by Neilson and Thorndike.

I  ‘Love Labour’s Lost,’ 1591; ‘Comedy of Errors,’ 1591; ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona,’ 1591–2  ‘1 Henry VI.,’ 1590–1; ‘2 Henry VI.,’ 1590–2; ‘3 Henry VI.,’ 1590–2; ‘Richard III.,’ 1593; ‘King John,’ 1593  ‘Titus Andronicus,’ 1593–4
II  ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ 1594–5; ‘Merchant of Venice,’ 1595–6; ‘Taming of the Shrew,’ 1596–7; ‘Merry Wives of Windsor,’ 1598; ‘Much Ado About Nothing,’ 1599; ‘As You Like It,’ 1599–1600; ‘Twelfth Night,’ 1601  ‘Richard II.,’ 1595; ‘1 Henry IV.,’ 1597; ‘2 Henry IV.,’ 1598; ‘Henry V.,’ 1599  ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ 1594–5; ‘Julius Cæsar,’ 1599
III  ‘Troilus and Cressida,’ 1601–2; ‘All’s Well That Ends Well,’ 1602; ‘Measure for Measure,’ 1603; ‘Pericles,’ 1607–8    ‘Hamlet,’ 1602, 1603; ‘Othello,’ 1604; ‘King Lear,’ 1605–6; ‘Macbeth,’ 1606; ‘Timon of Athens,’ 1607; ‘Antony and Cleopatra,’ 1607–8; ‘Coriolanus,’ 1609
IV  ‘Cymbeline,’ 1610; ‘Winter’s Tale,’ 1611; ‘Tempest,’ 1611; ‘Two Noble Kinsmen,’ 1612–13  ‘Henry VIII.,’ 1612
  Although the lines of division are not hard and fast, the plays fall not unnaturally into the four periods indicated in the table.  17
  The first period is one of imitation. Several different types of plays were popular on the London stage when Shakespeare began to write for it, and in the period of his apprenticeship the poet tried his hand, one or more times, at nearly every kind. In the first period history plays predominate. Apparently his first work was done on plays based upon English history, and in the earliest of these, in fact, he seems to be doing piece-work in revision or collaboration or both. Probably he wrote only seven or eight scenes in the first part of ‘Henry VI.,’ and probably he revised, or aided in revising, the second and third parts of that play from originals written by another man or by other men. But in ‘Richard III.’ he produced an impressive history play unassisted, though following closely the model of Marlowe in the figure of his hero and the handling of his plot and verse. Then he proceeds to ‘King John,’ in some respects more independent, though a play of less compelling interest. During the same years, in comedy, he wrote ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost,’ at once an imitation and in some part a satire of the kind of play that Lyly wrote; ‘The Comedy of Errors,’ a farce improving on the play of Plautus which suggested it; and ‘The Two Gentlemen of Verona,’ his earliest romantic comedy, which, with less specific models, has resemblances to certain plays of Greene and to one or two other comedies preceding it. Toward the close of the period he dipped into the “tragedy of blood,” as written by Kyd and other dramatists, and in this first tragedy outdid all previous authors for manifold and fearsome horror on the stage.  18
  In the second period comedy predominates. Shakespeare keeps up his work in history, but with great changes. In ‘Richard II.,’ to be sure, at the beginning of the period, there is no great alteration in dramatic method from ‘King John’; but in the two parts of ‘Henry IV.,’ toward the middle of the period, there is a marked change. Whether from a feeling that the facts of history did not naturally combine into a true dramatic plot, or for other reasons, Shakespeare departs from the common model of the history play and by the introduction of Falstaff and his fellows turns half of the play into pure comedy. So much does the comic interest surpass the historical in these plays, indeed, that in another drama Shakespeare takes Falstaff out of the historical setting and devotes to him a separate comedy, ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor.’ In ‘Henry V.’ there is a partial return to history of the older type. After that Shakespeare breaks the mold. He does no more in English history except to take a hand with Fletcher, at the very end of his career, in ‘Henry VIII.’ If the histories of this period show a tendency to comedy, the two tragedies are measurably different from most of Shakespeare’s tragic dramas. ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ near the beginning of the period, is a tragedy of exuberant romantic love which could easily be turned into a comedy, and which was, as a matter of fact, frequently given as a comedy with the few changes which that transformation requires. But even taken as a tragedy, the play leads to disaster through joy and glory and not through the despair and doom of ‘Hamlet’ or ‘Lear’ or ‘Macbeth.’ Nor is the high Roman tragedy of ‘Julius Cæsar,’ toward the end of the period, a drama of such bitterness, personal and social, as the later tragedies. Now along with the four histories and the two tragedies of the period Shakespeare produced seven comedies: the delicate fantasy of ‘The Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ the romantic story of love and revenge in ‘The Merchant of Venice,’ the two more boisterous comedies, approaching farce, of ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ and ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor,’ and the three consummate comedies of love and laughter, ‘Much Ado About Nothing,’ ‘As You Like It,’ and ‘Twelfth Night.’  19
  The third period is one of tragedy. Comedies usher it in, to be sure, but they are comedies that show the seamy side of life in frank and often bitter realism. In these traits ‘Troilus and Cressida,’ ‘All’s Well That Ends Well,’ and ‘Measure for Measure’ mark a departure from the mirthful comedies immediately preceding them as strikingly as do the tragedies that now begin. In ‘Hamlet,’ ‘Othello,’ ‘Lear,’ ‘Macbeth,’ and ‘Timon’ Shakespeare is probing the darkest problems that mortality can meet, and in general the gloom grows thicker as we progress through those five plays. It is somewhat alleviated in the luxuriant poetry that immortalizes the story of wanton love in ‘Antony and Cleopatra,’ and much more in the romantic adventures of ‘Pericles,’ presage of the last comedies soon to come. But it resumes sway in the final tragedy of ‘Coriolanus,’ the last story of a hero living in the cursed spite of problems he cannot solve.  20
  The last period is one of comedy again, or tragicomedy,—of “dramatic romances,” as the latest plays are usually called. The turning is seen in ‘Cymbeline’; the triumphs of romance are ‘The Winter’s Tale’ and ‘The Tempest.’ With these stories Shakespeare’s career is near its close. After them we have only his share in ‘The Two Noble Kinsmen’ and ‘Henry VIII.’ to complete his work.  21
  If the shifting of interest from one species of drama to another is thus clear from the list, the gain in power, of every kind required of the dramatist, is equally clear. The growth of Shakespeare’s powers is at once gradual and rapid. It is not without certain lapses, due apparently to haste in some cases and to the suspension of high ambition in others. Thus after the triumphs of lyric fancy in ‘The Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and of plot-making and character-drawing in ‘The Merchant of Venice,’ Shakespeare was willing to revamp a farce into ‘The Taming of the Shrew’; after the creation of England’s greatest comic character in Falstaff, he found it possible in great measure to debase that character in ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor,’ a comedy so definitely inferior to others of the period as to incline one to believe the story that it was written at the order of the Queen and in a fortnight; after the thunderings of ‘Lear’ and the supreme poetry of ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ he was content to join hands in some way with a third-rate poet in dramatizing the sprawling story of adventure that constitutes ‘Pericles.’ Such occasional lapses from high seriousness are consonant with all that we know about the character of the dramatist. But a few lapses of this kind aside, the growth of Shakespeare’s genius is as regular as with most authors, and as remarkable perhaps as is recorded anywhere in literature.  22
  In his very earliest work at piecing out plays with other authors Shakespeare exhibits no very original or distinctive gift. In the three plays of ‘Henry VI.’ the sections most probably his are indeed better than most other portions of the plays, in verse, in dramatic effect, and in grasp of character; but they are only slightly better, and are in no wise different in aim from the rest of the plays. Very much the same statement can be made of ‘Titus Andronicus’ in comparison with the preceding plays similar to it; it is in better verse than almost any tragedy of blood before it, and it outdoes every tragedy of blood in the main effect common to them all—terror. But in ‘Richard III.’ we have the promise at least of genius. True, there is little innovation in the play: the verse is Marlowe’s mighty line, the diction his high-astounding terms, the hero-villain his Tamburlaine made English, and the plot is history turned into drama of the straight-line type rather than of the rise and fall of complication and solution; but the result is a play that surpasses Marlowe in dramatic interest, that has held the stage from its own day to ours. In comedy Shakespeare starts somewhat more independently, and yet humbly enough. ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ should have shown any contemporary that a new genius in wielding English words had arisen, but it would have promised not a great deal more. ‘The Comedy of Errors’ displayed capacity for fun and cunning in plot-construction—made easier by the excellent model of Plautus; it is definitely but not immeasurably in advance of any comedy in English up to its time. ‘The Two Gentlemen of Verona’ presages all kinds of high delight to come in the romantic comedies of a few years later; but we see the promise in it mainly because we see the performance in those later plays, and without them it is doubtful if we should see more in it than did, presumably, the spectators at its first performance—a problem of romantic love distastefully solved. Taken together, the plays of the first period show a talent more varied than any that had worked in English drama up to this time and in some respects perhaps a little more powerful than any, but they show nothing exalted, nothing that transcends the achievement of the best contemporary plays. If Shakespeare had died at the end of this period, we should have no way of knowing that the greatest dramatist of England had been lost, and half a dozen other authors could have disputed the primacy among Elizabethan playwrights.  23
  But no such dispute could arise if Shakespeare had completed only the earlier works of the second period. The stage-carpentry necessary to his trade quickly mastered, he sets about the building of temples beyond the imagination of his teachers. For fairy charm, for rustic mirth, and equally for welding the most uncompanionable plots into unison, ‘The Midsummer Night’s Dream’ was without precedent in English, and remains unsurpassed. For exhibition of complex character in compelling plot, ‘The Merchant of Venice’ was unapproached by any comedy preceding it, and maintains comparison with any following. For the expression of the love of youth ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is the classic drama of modern times. For fun-making Falstaff remains peerless in succeeding literature. For the rendition of Roman history in tragedy ‘Julius Cæsar’ is unrivaled except by the later Roman plays of Shakespeare himself. For sheer delight of comic dialogue, winsome womanhood, graceful poetry, and romantic story, the three great comedies that close the period remain unmatched by any performances of modern times. To feel that in this period Shakespeare has distanced all his predecessors in poetic phrasing one need only open the book and read. To estimate his mastery of human character, it is enough to run through the dramatis personæ of the plays and notice the dozens of names that are now household words. To realize his skill in dramatic composition, one need only remember that every play from this period except ‘Richard II.’ is still popular on the stage. Had Shakespeare retired now, we should have known him for our greatest dramatist.  24
  But we should have still been far from the full measure of his powers. Precisely because they are pieces of such rare delight the plays we have just been mentioning did not offer opportunity for the display of all the profundity of vision into the secret chambers of the human heart, or all the power to grapple with the problems of humanity, or all the intensity of poetic utterance that are exhibited in the plays of the third period. Mature stagecraft and matchless gift of words and insight into character are now brought to work upon the weightiest matters that man can deal with, and the result is the supreme drama of our language. Hamlet is probably at once the most inviting and the most baffling character in literature. Othello remains the example above all others of the deceived lover whose love was a religion. King Lear is the most moving picture of doting age attended by filial impiety. Macbeth has no equal as a portrait of ambition gnawing at the roots of character. Antony and Cleopatra are willing victims of passion rendered into poetry the like of which is hardly to be found in any other work. To pass these plays thus in a breath—leaving others entirely unmentioned—is but to state one aspect of each in which it may be pronounced literally peerless.  25
  And yet if Shakespeare had retired at the end of his third period, we should miss something that the world would be greatly loath to lose. Whatever it may mean about the man, if anything, it means something to us to know that Shakespeare took leave of the stage in happier plays. The last romances show a serenity more calm, a seeming faith in final good more settled, than do the plays of any other period. They have less to do with rollicking good humor than the comedies of the second period, and deal more with human nature tried but found true, passing through tribulation to final reward. So it is with a message of satisfaction and good cheer, founded not on innocence but on knowledge, that ‘The Winter’s Tale’ and ‘The Tempest’ complete the works in a strain less crashing but not less lofty.  26
  There is no intention here of praising Shakespeare. Only the critic specially endowed of heaven should attempt that. If critical adjectives have been copious, they have been meant only to show the shifting of Shakespeare’s interest from play to play as he progressed and the growth of his gifts from normal human beginnings to unrivaled strength. With these considerations one other question naturally arises: what were the reasons for Shakespeare’s turning from comedy to tragedy and from tragedy to romance? Why did he progress from buoyancy to bitterness and then to comfort and reconciliation?  27
  In some quarters it is still thought—as, for long, it was widely believed—that these changes in the plays came from changes in the thought and feeling of the dramatist. It was argued—frequently with the support of one interpretation or another of the “story” in the sonnets—that Shakespeare’s life was full of happiness in the period of comedy, that misfortune and resultant gloom overcame him in the tragic period, but that in the end, at the time of the romances, he had become reconciled; and that the plays of the three periods voice these emotions of the dramatist. While all this cannot be entirely disproved, there is exceptionally little likelihood that it is true. The story in the sonnets has never been made out in any essential detail. It may be all fiction, as the majority of sonnet stories were; at least it is more than probable that the story represents no vital experience of the poet. No single record points to any reason why Shakespeare should have been unhappier during the six years after 1600 than in the six years before. On the contrary, the one great sorrow that we know came to him—the death of his son—occurred at the time he was writing comedy and farce; and no sorrow is recorded from the years when he was writing ‘Lear’ and ‘Timon.’ The theory is therefore untenable for lack of facts, and since what facts we have tell against it.  28
  It is more likely, as is coming to be believed, that in changing from one kind of play to another Shakespeare was largely following the vogue of the time. This is consonant with his genius. He was a man intent not so much on inventing something that no one else had thought of as on perfecting what was promising in other men’s inventions—on adopting their forms and filling them with meaning. Now it has been shown that up to nearly 1600 romantic comedy was in high vogue, and it is presumable that Shakespeare was moved simply to write the kind of play most successful at the time, and owing to native genius produced the masterpieces of the type. Around 1600 romantic comedy was severely criticized and lost favor considerably; popular taste swung to realistic comedy and to tragedy. Shakespeare responded with his more cynical comedies and with the tragedies, and again produced the masterpieces. When such plays had mainly held the stage for somewhat less than a decade, a relatively new type of romantic tragicomedy came into favor; and Shakespeare’s last romances are apparently a response to this new form. To explain the shifting of his interests at least partially in this manner is not unnatural, and it subtracts nothing from his glory.  29
  If the record of Shakespeare’s life is fairly continuous, and the growth of his powers as dramatist and poet adequately clear, the picture of the man himself is still somewhat dim. Few lovers of his plays can have avoided asking the question, what sort of man was Shakespeare? And the world has seen a considerable number of books and essays that attempt an answer to that question. But the question is fraught with difficulty. Most of the facts recorded of Shakespeare’s life are such as shed little light upon his character. And outside of the Sonnets, at least,—and no interpretation of the Sonnets has advanced much beyond guesswork,—Shakespeare is one of the most dramatic of authors, which is to say that it is his genius to reveal others and to conceal himself. No one doubts that there was a powerful personality behind the plays, and few would doubt that their author had, in Dryden’s words, “the largest and most comprehensive soul” possessed by any English poet; it is only when we try to be much more specific that we are in danger. Yet from the very fact that Shakespeare is habitually silent about his own opinions while the characters in the plays are giving voice to theirs we gather one truth about him, namely that he was a man with no gospel that he felt he must expound. This is a cardinal fact about him, and it implies a good deal else; and certain other inferences may be drawn, from his plays and from the record of his life, without passing over into the conjectural.  30
  The records point to a man who was upright and good-humored. “Gentle” is one of the favorite terms for him among his friends, though this should not be taken in a sentimental sense, since there is evidence enough that he was conscious of his own dignity and of the justice that was due to him. That he had a sense of humor is beyond question. No man without the highest measure of that could have created Falstaff or any of a score of other characters in the plays. Though it does not necessarily follow that Shakespeare was habitually merry in company, we have the testimony of Fuller that his genius was “generally jocular” and that in the wit-combats with Ben Jonson he displayed the less learned but the more nimble wit. He was catholic in his sympathies, and could be at home with many kinds of men, good and bad, wise and foolish, or he could hardly have reproduced so many types of them with so much relish. The “open and free nature” which Jonson accords him naturally found least pleasure in strait-laced persons, in pedants, for instance, and in puritans. Disliking pedants, he was himself in no strict sense a scholar; a man of wide reading, as has been proved, and of much general information, but far from scholastic. In the affairs of every day he was capable and diligent; there is no evidence of the “artistic temperament,” as that term is now used. In politics we are fairly sure that he was inclined to aristocratic sympathies, though perhaps not more so than most of his fellow-dramatists. Of his religion little can be said with confidence. He knew nature intimately, and he loved the sports of the field. He knew human nature in all its tragicomic experience as no other English writer has known it. And for its portrayal he had a matchless gift of words.  31

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