Nature, that framed us of four elements Warring within our breasts for regiment, Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds: Our souls—whose faculties can comprehend The wondrous architecture of the world, And measure every wandering planet's course, Still climbing after knowledge infinite, And always moving as the restless spheres— Will us to wear ourselves and never rest. Tamburlaine, Pt. I, II, vii.
Life. Marlowe was born in Canterbury, only a few months before Shakespeare. He was the son of a poor shoemaker, but through the kindness of a patron was educated at the town grammar school and then at Cambridge. When he came to London (c. 1584), his soul was surging with the ideals of the Renaissance, which later found expression in Faustus, the scholar longing for unlimited knowledge and for power to grasp the universe. Unfortunately, Marlowe had also the unbridled passions which mark the early, or Pagan Renaissance, as Taine calls it, and the conceit of a young man just entering the realms of knowledge. He became an actor and lived in a low-tavern atmosphere of excess and wretchedness. In 1587, when but twenty-three years old, he produced Tamburlaine, which brought him instant recognition. Thereafter, notwithstanding his wretched life, he holds steadily to a high literary purpose. Though all his plays abound in violence, no doubt reflecting many of the violent scenes in which he lived, he develops his "mighty line" and depicts great scenes in magnificent bursts of poetry, such as the stage had never heard before. In five years, while Shakespeare was serving his apprenticeship, Marlowe produced all his great work. Then he was stabbed in a drunken brawl and died wretchedly, as he had lived. The Epilogue of Faustus might be written across his tombstone:
Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight, And burned is Apollo's laurel bough That sometime grew within this learned man.
MARLOWE'S WORKS. In addition to the poem "Hero and Leander," to which we have referred, Marlowe is famous for four dramas, now known as the Marlowesque or one-man type of tragedy, each revolving about one central personality who is consumed by the lust of power. The first of these is Tamburlaine, the story of Timur the Tartar. Timur begins as a shepherd chief, who first rebels and then triumphs over the Persian king. Intoxicated by his success, Timur rushes like a tempest over the whole East. Seated on his chariot drawn by captive kings, with a caged emperor before him, he boasts of his power which overrides all things. Then, afflicted with disease, he raves against the gods and would overthrow them as he has overthrown earthly rulers. Tamburlaine is an epic rather than a drama; but one can understand its instant success with a people only half civilized, fond of military glory, and the instant adoption of its "mighty line" as the instrument of all dramatic expression.
Faustus, the second play, is one of the best of Marlowe's works. The story is that of a scholar who longs for infinite knowledge, and who turns from Theology, Philosophy, Medicine, and Law, the four sciences of the time, to the study of magic, much as a child might turn from jewels to tinsel and colored paper. In order to learn magic he sells himself to the devil, on condition that he shall have twenty-four years of absolute power and knowledge. The play is the story of those twenty-four years. Like Tamburlaine, it is lacking in dramatic construction, but has an unusual number of passages of rare poetic beauty. Milton's Satan suggests strongly that the author of Paradise Lost had access to Faustus and used it, as he may also have used Tamburlaine, for the magnificent panorama displayed by Satan in Paradise Regained. For instance, more than fifty years before Milton's hero says, "Which way I turn is hell, myself am hell," Marlowe had written:
Faust. How comes it then that thou art out of hell? Mephisto. Why this is hell, nor am I out of it. * * * * * Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed In one self place; for where we are is hell, And where hell is there must we ever be.
Marlowe's third play is The Jew of Malta, a study of the lust for wealth, which centers about Barabas, a terrible old money lender, strongly suggestive of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. The first part of the play is well constructed, showing a decided advance, but the last part is an accumulation of melodramatic horrors. Barabas is checked in his murderous career by falling into a boiling caldron which he had prepared for another, and dies blaspheming, his only regret being that he has not done more evil in his life.
Marlowe's last play is Edward II, a tragic study of a king's weakness and misery. In point of style and dramatic construction, it is by far the best of Marlowe's plays, and is a worthy predecessor of Shakespeare's historical drama.
Marlowe is the only dramatist of the time who is ever compared with Shakespeare. When we remember that he died at twenty-nine, probably before Shakespeare had produced a single great play, we must wonder what he might have done had he outlived his wretched youth and become a man. Here and there his work is remarkable for its splendid imagination, for the stateliness of its verse, and for its rare bits of poetic beauty; but in dramatic instinct, in wide knowledge of human life, in humor, in delineation of woman's character, in the delicate fancy which presents an Ariel as perfectly as a Macbeth,—in a word, in all that makes a dramatic genius, Shakespeare stands alone. Marlowe simply prepared the way for the master who was to follow.
VARIETY OF THE EARLY DRAMA. The thirty years between our first regular English plays and Shakespeare's first comedy witnessed a development of the drama which astonishes us both by its rapidity and variety. We shall better appreciate Shakespeare's work if we glance for a moment at the plays that preceded him, and note how he covers the whole field and writes almost every form and variety of the drama known to his age.
First in importance, or at least in popular interest, are the new Chronicle plays, founded upon historical events and characters. They show the strong national spirit of the Elizabethan Age, and their popularity was due largely to the fact that audiences came to the theaters partly to gratify their awakened national spirit and to get their first knowledge of national history. Some of the Moralities, like Bayle's King Johan (1538), are crude Chronicle plays, and the early Robin Hood plays and the first tragedy, Gorboduc, show the same awakened popular interest in English history. During the reign of Elizabeth the popular Chronicle plays increased till we have the record of over two hundred and twenty, half of which are still extant, dealing with almost every important character, real or legendary, in English history. Of Shakespeare's thirty-seven dramas, ten are true Chronicle plays of English kings; three are from the legendary annals of Britain; and three more are from the history of other nations.
Other types of the early drama are less clearly defined, but we may sum them up under a few general heads: (1) The Domestic Drama began with crude home scenes introduced into the Miracles and developed in a score of different ways, from the coarse humor of Gammer Gurton's Needle to the Comedy of Manners of Jonson and the later dramatists. Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew and Merry Wives of Windsor belong to this class. (2) The so-called Court Comedy is the opposite of the former in that it represented a different kind of life and was intended for a different audience. It was marked by elaborate dialogue, by jests, retorts, and endless plays on words, rather than by action. It was made popular by Lyly's success, and was imitated in Shakespeare's first or "Lylian" comedies, such as Love's Labour's Lost, and the complicated Two Gentlemen of Verona. (3) Romantic Comedy and Romantic Tragedy suggest the most artistic and finished types of the drama, which were experimented upon by Peele, Greene, and Marlowe, and were brought to perfection in The Merchant of Venice, Romeo and Juliet, and The Tempest. (4) In addition to the above types were several others,—the Classical Plays, modeled upon Seneca and favored by cultivated audiences; the Melodrama, favorite of the groundlings, which depended not on plot or characters but upon a variety of striking scenes and incidents; and the Tragedy of Blood, always more or less melodramatic, like Kyd's Spanish Tragedy, which grew more blood-and-thundery in Marlowe and reached a climax of horrors in Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus. It is noteworthy that Hamlet, Lear, and Macbeth all belong to this class, but the developed genius of the author raised them to a height such as the Tragedy of Blood had never known before.
These varied types are quite enough to show with what doubtful and unguided experiments our first dramatists were engaged, like men first setting out in rafts and dugouts on an unknown sea. They are the more interesting when we remember that Shakespeare tried them all; that he is the only dramatist whose plays cover the whole range of the drama from its beginning to its decline. From the stage spectacle he developed the drama of human life; and instead of the doggerel and bombast of our first plays he gives us the poetry of Romeo and Juliet and Midsummer Night's Dream. In a word, Shakespeare brought order out of dramatic chaos. In a few short years he raised the drama from a blundering experiment to a perfection of form and expression which has never since been rivaled.
One who reads a few of Shakespeare's great plays and then the meager story of his life is generally filled with a vague wonder. Here is an unknown country boy, poor and poorly educated according to the standards of his age, who arrives at the great city of London and goes to work at odd jobs in a theater. In a year or two he is associated with scholars and dramatists, the masters of their age, writing plays of kings and clowns, of gentlemen and heroes and noble women, all of whose lives he seems to know by intimate association. In a few years more he leads all that brilliant group of poets and dramatists who have given undying glory to the Age of Elizabeth. Play after play runs from his pen, mighty dramas of human life and character following one another so rapidly that good work seems impossible; yet they stand the test of time, and their poetry is still unrivaled in any language. For all this great work the author apparently cares little, since he makes no attempt to collect or preserve his writings. A thousand scholars have ever since been busy collecting, identifying, classifying the works which this magnificent workman tossed aside so carelessly when he abandoned the drama and retired to his native village. He has a marvelously imaginative and creative mind; but he invents few, if any, new plots or stories. He simply takes an old play or an old poem, makes it over quickly, and lo! this old familiar material glows with the deepest thoughts and the tenderest feelings that ennoble our humanity; and each new generation of men finds it more wonderful than the last. How did he do it? That is still an unanswered question and the source of our wonder.
There are, in general, two theories to account for Shakespeare. The romantic school of writers have always held that in him "all came from within"; that his genius was his sufficient guide; and that to the overmastering power of his genius alone we owe all his great works. Practical, unimaginative men, on the other hand, assert that in Shakespeare "all came from without," and that we must study his environment rather than his genius, if we are to understand him. He lived in a play-loving age; he studied the crowds, gave them what they wanted, and simply reflected their own thoughts and feelings. In reflecting the English crowd about him he unconsciously reflected all crowds, which are alike in all ages; hence his continued popularity. And in being guided by public sentiment he was not singular, but followed the plain path that every good dramatist has always followed to success.
Probably the truth of the matter is to be found somewhere between these two extremes. Of his great genius there can be no question; but there are other things to consider. As we have already noticed, Shakespeare was trained, like his fellow workmen, first as an actor, second as a reviser of old plays, and last as an independent dramatist. He worked with other playwrights and learned their secret. Like them, he studied and followed the public taste, and his work indicates at least three stages, from his first somewhat crude experiments to his finished masterpieces. So it would seem that in Shakespeare we have the result of hard work and of orderly human development, quite as much as of transcendent genius.
LIFE (1564-1616). Two outward influences were powerful in developing the genius of Shakespeare,—the little village of Stratford, center of the most beautiful and romantic district in rural England, and the great city of London, the center of the world's political activity. In one he learned to know the natural man in his natural environment; in the other, the social, the artificial man in the most unnatural of surroundings.
From the register of the little parish church at Stratford-on-Avon we learn that William Shakespeare was baptized there on the twenty-sixth of April, 1564 (old style). As it was customary to baptize children on the third day after birth, the twenty-third of April (May 3, according to our present calendar) is generally accepted as the poet's birthday.
His father, John Shakespeare, was a farmer's son from the neighboring village of Snitterfield, who came to Stratford about 1551, and began to prosper as a trader in corn, meat, leather, and other agricultural products. His mother, Mary Arden, was the daughter of a prosperous farmer, descended from an old Warwickshire family of mixed Anglo-Saxon and Norman blood. In 1559 this married couple sold a piece of land, and the document is signed, "The marke + of John Shacksper. The marke + of Mary Shacksper"; and from this it has been generally inferred that, like the vast majority of their countrymen, neither of the poet's parents could read or write. This was probably true of his mother; but the evidence from Stratford documents now indicates that his father could write, and that he also audited the town accounts; though in attesting documents he sometimes made a mark, leaving his name to be filled in by the one who drew up the document.
Of Shakespeare's education we know little, except that for a few years he probably attended the endowed grammar school at Stratford, where he picked up the "small Latin and less Greek" to which his learned friend Ben Jonson refers. His real teachers, meanwhile, were the men and women and the natural influences which surrounded him. Stratford is a charming little village in beautiful Warwickshire, and near at hand were the Forest of Arden, the old castles of Warwick and Kenilworth, and the old Roman camps and military roads, to appeal powerfully to the boy's lively imagination. Every phase of the natural beauty of this exquisite region is reflected in Shakespeare's poetry; just as his characters reflect the nobility and the littleness, the gossip, vices, emotions, prejudices, and traditions of the people about him.
I saw a smith stand with his hammer, thus, The whilst his iron did on the anvil cool, With open mouth swallowing a tailor's news; Who, with his shears and measure in his hand, Standing on slippers, which his nimble haste Had falsely thrust upon contrary feet, Told of a many thousand warlike French That were embattailed and ranked in Kent.
Such passages suggest not only genius but also a keen, sympathetic observer, whose eyes see every significant detail. So with the nurse in Romeo and Juliet, whose endless gossip and vulgarity cannot quite hide a kind heart. She is simply the reflection of some forgotten nurse with whom Shakespeare had talked by the wayside.
Not only the gossip but also the dreams, the unconscious poetry that sleeps in the heart of the common people, appeal tremendously to Shakespeare's imagination and are reflected in his greatest plays. Othello tries to tell a curt soldier's story of his love; but the account is like a bit of Mandeville's famous travels, teeming with the fancies that filled men's heads when the great round world was first brought to their attention by daring explorers. Here is a bit of folklore, touched by Shakespeare's exquisite fancy, which shows what one boy listened to before the fire at Halloween:
She comes In shape no bigger than an agate-stone On the fore-finger of an alderman, Drawn with a team of little atomies Athwart men's noses as they lie asleep; Her waggon-spokes made of long spinners' legs, The cover of the wings of grasshoppers, The traces of the smallest spider's web, The collars of the moonshine's watery beams, Her whip of cricket's bone, the lash of film, Her waggoner a small grey-coated gnat, * * * * * Her chariot is an empty hazel nut Made by the joiner squirrel, or old grub, Time out o' mind the fairies' coachmakers. And in this state she gallops night by night Through lovers' brains, and then they dream of love; * * * * * O'er lawyers' fingers, who straight dream on fees, O'er ladies' lips, who straight on kisses dream.
So with Shakespeare's education at the hands of Nature, which came from keeping his heart as well as his eyes wide open to the beauty of the world. He speaks of a horse, and we know the fine points of a thoroughbred; he mentions the duke's hounds, and we hear them clamoring on a fox trail, their voices matched like bells in the frosty air; he stops for an instant in the sweep of a tragedy to note a flower, a star, a moonlit bank, a hilltop touched by the sunrise, and instantly we know what our own hearts felt but could not quite express when we saw the same thing. Because he notes and remembers every significant thing in the changing panorama of earth and sky, no other writer has ever approached him in the perfect natural setting of his characters.
When Shakespeare was about fourteen years old his father lost his little property and fell into debt, and the boy probably left school to help support the family of younger children. What occupation he followed for the next eight years is a matter of conjecture. From evidence found in his plays, it is alleged with some show of authority that he was a country schoolmaster and a lawyer's clerk, the character of Holofernes, in Love's Labour's Lost, being the warrant for one, and Shakespeare's knowledge of law terms for the other. But if we take such evidence, then Shakespeare must have been a botanist, because of his knowledge of wild flowers; a sailor, because he knows the ropes; a courtier, because of his extraordinary facility in quips and compliments and courtly language; a clown, because none other is so dull and foolish; a king, because Richard and Henry are true to life; a woman, because he has sounded the depths of a woman's feelings; and surely a Roman, because in Coriolanus and Julius Caesar he has shown us the Roman spirit better than have the Roman writers themselves. He was everything, in his imagination, and it is impossible from a study of his scenes and characters to form a definite opinion as to his early occupation.
In 1582 Shakespeare was married to Anne Hathaway, the daughter of a peasant family of Shottery, who was eight years older than her boy husband. From numerous sarcastic references to marriage made by the characters in his plays, and from the fact that he soon left his wife and family and went to London, it is generally alleged that the marriage was a hasty and unhappy one; but here again the evidence is entirely untrustworthy. In many Miracles as well as in later plays it was customary to depict the seamy side of domestic life for the amusement of the crowd; and Shakespeare may have followed the public taste in this as he did in other things. The references to love and home and quiet joys in Shakespeare's plays are enough, if we take such evidence, to establish firmly the opposite supposition, that his love was a very happy one. And the fact that, after his enormous success in London, he retired to Stratford to live quietly with his wife and daughters, tends to the same conclusion.
About the year 1587 Shakespeare left his family and went to London and joined himself to Burbage's company of players. A persistent tradition says that he had incurred the anger of Sir Thomas Lucy, first by poaching deer in that nobleman's park, and then, when haled before a magistrate, by writing a scurrilous ballad about Sir Thomas, which so aroused the old gentleman's ire that Shakespeare was obliged to flee the country. An old record says that the poet "was much given to all unluckiness in stealing venison and rabbits," the unluckiness probably consisting in getting caught himself, and not in any lack of luck in catching the rabbits. The ridicule heaped upon the Lucy family in Henry IV and the Merry Wives of Windsor gives some weight to this tradition. Nicholas Rowe, who published the first life of Shakespeare, is the authority for this story; but there is some reason to doubt whether, at the time when Shakespeare is said to have poached in the deer park of Sir Thomas Lucy at Charlescote, there were any deer or park at the place referred to. The subject is worthy of some scant attention, if only to show how worthless is the attempt to construct out of rumor the story of a great life which, fortunately perhaps, had no contemporary biographer.
Of his life in London from 1587 to 1611, the period of his greatest literary activity, we know nothing definitely. We can judge only from his plays, and from these it is evident that he entered into the stirring life of England's capital with the same perfect sympathy and understanding that marked him among the plain people of his native Warwickshire. The first authentic reference to him is in 1592, when Greene's bitter attack appeared, showing plainly that Shakespeare had in five years assumed an important position among playwrights. Then appeared the apology of the publishers of Greene's pamphlet, with their tribute to the poet's sterling character, and occasional literary references which show that he was known among his fellows as "the gentle Shakespeare." Ben Jonson says of him: "I loved the man and do honor his memory, on this side idolatry, as much as any. He was indeed honest, and of an open and free nature." To judge from only three of his earliest plays it would seem reasonably evident that in the first five years of his London life he had gained entrance to the society of gentlemen and scholars, had caught their characteristic mannerisms and expressions, and so was ready by knowledge and observation as well as by genius to weave into his dramas the whole stirring life of the English people. The plays themselves, with the testimony of contemporaries and his business success, are strong evidence against the tradition that his life in London was wild and dissolute, like that of the typical actor and playwright of his time.
Shakespeare's first work may well have been that of a general helper, an odd-job man, about the theater; but he soon became an actor, and the records of the old London theaters show that in the next ten years he gained a prominent place, though there is little reason to believe that he was counted among the "stars." Within two years he was at work on plays, and his course here was exactly like that of other playwrights of his time. He worked with other men, and he revised old plays before writing his own, and so gained a practical knowledge of his art. Henry VI (c. 1590-1591) is an example of this tinkering work, in which, however, his native power is unmistakably manifest. The three parts of Henry VI (and Richard III, which belongs with them) are a succession of scenes from English Chronicle history strung together very loosely; and only in the last is there any definite attempt at unity. That he soon fell under Marlowe's influence is evident from the atrocities and bombast of Titus Andronicus and Richard III. The former may have been written by both playwrights in collaboration, or may be one of Marlowe's horrors left unfinished by his early death and brought to an end by Shakespeare. He soon broke away from this apprentice work, and then appeared in rapid succession Love's Labour's Lost, Comedy of Errors, Two Gentlemen of Verona, the first English Chronicle plays, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Romeo and Juliet. This order is more or less conjectural; but the wide variety of these plays, as well as their unevenness and frequent crudities, marks the first or experimental stage of Shakespeare's work. It is as if the author were trying his power, or more likely trying the temper of his audience. For it must be remembered that to please his audience was probably the ruling motive of Shakespeare, as of the other early dramatists, during the most vigorous and prolific period of his career.
Shakespeare's poems, rather than his dramatic work, mark the beginning of his success. "Venus and Adonis" became immensely popular in London, and its dedication to the Earl of Southampton brought, according to tradition, a substantial money gift, which may have laid the foundation for Shakespeare's business success. He appears to have shrewdly invested his money, and soon became part owner of the Globe and Blackfriars theaters, in which his plays were presented by his own companies. His success and popularity grew amazingly. Within a decade of his unnoticed arrival in London he was one of the most famous actors and literary men in England.
Following his experimental work there came a succession of wonderful plays,—Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra. The great tragedies of this period are associated with a period of gloom and sorrow in the poet's life; but of its cause we have no knowledge. It may have been this unknown sorrow which turned his thoughts back to Stratford and caused, apparently, a dissatisfaction with his work and profession; but the latter is generally attributed to other causes. Actors and playwrights were in his day generally looked upon with suspicion or contempt; and Shakespeare, even in the midst of success, seems to have looked forward to the time when he could retire to Stratford to live the life of a farmer and country gentleman. His own and his father's families were first released from debt; then, in 1597, he bought New Place, the finest house in Stratford, and soon added a tract of farming land to complete his estate. His profession may have prevented his acquiring the title of "gentleman," or he may have only followed a custom of the time when he applied for and obtained a coat of arms for his father, and so indirectly secured the title by inheritance. His home visits grew more and more frequent till, about the year 1611, he left London and retired permanently to Stratford.
Though still in the prime of life, Shakespeare soon abandoned his dramatic work for the comfortable life of a country gentleman. Of his later plays, Coriolanus, Cymbeline, Winter's Tale, and Pericles show a decided falling off from his previous work, and indicate another period of experimentation; this time not to test his own powers but to catch the fickle humor of the public. As is usually the case with a theater-going people, they soon turned from serious drama to sentimental or more questionable spectacles; and with Fletcher, who worked with Shakespeare and succeeded him as the first playwright of London, the decline of the drama had already begun. In 1609, however, occurred an event which gave Shakespeare his chance for a farewell to the public. An English ship disappeared, and all on board were given up for lost. A year later the sailors returned home, and their arrival created intense excitement. They had been wrecked on the unknown Bermudas, and had lived there for ten months, terrified by mysterious noises which they thought came from spirits and devils. Five different accounts of this fascinating shipwreck were published, and the Bermudas became known as the "Ile of Divels." Shakespeare took this story—which caused as much popular interest as that later shipwreck which gave us Robinson Crusoe—and wove it into The Tempest. In the same year (1611) he probably sold his interest in the Globe and Blackfriars theaters, and his dramatic work was ended. A few plays were probably left unfinished and were turned over to Fletcher and other dramatists.
That Shakespeare thought little of his success and had no idea that his dramas were the greatest that the world ever produced seems evident from the fact that he made no attempt to collect or publish his works, or even to save his manuscripts, which were carelessly left to stage managers of the theaters, and so found their way ultimately to the ragman. After a few years of quiet life, of which we have less record than of hundreds of simple country gentlemen of the time, Shakespeare died on the probable anniversary of his birth, April 23, 1616. He was given a tomb in the chancel of the parish church, not because of his preeminence in literature, but because of his interest in the affairs of a country village. And in the sad irony of fate, the broad stone that covered his tomb—now an object of veneration to the thousands that yearly visit the little church—was inscribed as follows:
Good friend, for Jesus' sake forbeare To dig the dust enclosed heare; Bleste be the man that spares these stones, And curst be he that moves my bones.
This wretched doggerel, over the world's greatest poet, was intended, no doubt, as a warning to some stupid sexton, lest he should empty the grave and give the honored place to some amiable gentleman who had given more tithes to the parish.
WORKS OF SHAKESPEARE. At the time of Shakespeare's death twenty-one plays existed in manuscripts in the various theaters. A few others had already been printed in quarto form, and the latter are the only publications that could possibly have met with the poet's own approval. More probably they were taken down in shorthand by some listener at the play and then "pirated" by some publisher for his own profit. The first printed collection of his plays, now called the First Folio (1623), was made by two actors, Heming and Condell, who asserted that they had access to the papers of the poet and had made a perfect edition, "in order to keep the memory of so worthy a friend and fellow alive." This contains thirty-six of the thirty-seven plays generally attributed to Shakespeare, Pericles being omitted. This celebrated First Folio was printed from playhouse manuscripts and from printed quartos containing many notes and changes by individual actors and stage managers. Moreover, it was full of typographical errors, though the editors alleged great care and accuracy; and so, though it is the only authoritative edition we have, it is of little value in determining the dates, or the classification of the plays as they existed in Shakespeare's mind.
Notwithstanding this uncertainty, a careful reading of the plays and poems leaves us with an impression of four different periods of work, probably corresponding with the growth and experience of the poet's life. These are: (1) a period of early experimentation. It is marked by youthfulness and exuberance of imagination, by extravagance of language, and by the frequent use of rimed couplets with his blank verse. The period dates from his arrival in London to 1595. Typical works of this first period are his early poems, Love's Labour's Lost, Two Gentlemen of Verona, and Richard III. (2) A period of rapid growth and development, from 1595 to 1600. Such plays as The Merchant of Venice, Midsummer Night's Dream, As You Like It, and Henry IV, all written in this period, show more careful and artistic work, better plots, and a marked increase in knowledge of human nature. (3) A period of gloom and depression, from 1600 to 1607, which marks the full maturity of his powers. What caused this evident sadness is unknown; but it is generally attributed to some personal experience, coupled with the political misfortunes of his friends, Essex and Southampton. The Sonnets with their note of personal disappointment, Twelfth Night, which is Shakespeare's "farewell to mirth," and his great tragedies, Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth, Othello, and Julius Caesar, belong to this period. (4) A period of restored serenity, of calm after storm, which marked the last years of the poet's literary work. The Winter's Tale and The Tempest are the best of his later plays; but they all show a falling off from his previous work, and indicate a second period of experimentation with the taste of a fickle public.
To read in succession four plays, taking a typical work from each of the above periods, is one of the very best ways of getting quickly at the real life and mind of Shakespeare. Following is a complete list with the approximate dates of his works, classified according to the above four periods.
First Period, Early Experiment. Venus and Adonis, Rape of Lucrece, 1594; Titus Andronicus, Henry VI (three parts), 1590-1591; Love's Labour's Lost, 1590; Comedy of Errors, Two Gentlemen of Verona, 1591-1592; Richard-III, 1593; Richard II, King John, 1594-1595.
Second Period, Development. Romeo and Juliet, Midsummer Night's Dream, 1595; Merchant of Venice, Henry IV (first part), 1596; Henry IV (second part), Merry Wives of Windsor, 1597; Much Ado About Nothing, 1598; As You Like It, Henry V, 1599.
Third Period, Maturity and Gloom. Sonnets (1600-?), Twelfth Night, 1600; Taming of the Shrew, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida, 1601-1602; All's Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, 1603; Othello, 1604; King Lear, 1605; Macbeth, 1606; Antony and Cleopatra, Timon of Athens, 1607.
Fourth Period, Late Experiment. Coriolanus, Pericles, 1608; Cymbeline, 1609; Winter's Tale, 1610-1611; The Tempest, 1611; Henry VIII (unfinished).
CLASSIFICATION ACCORDING TO SOURCE. In history, legend, and story, Shakespeare found the material for nearly all his dramas; and so they are often divided into three classes, called historical plays, like Richard III and Henry V; legendary or partly historical plays, like Macbeth, King Lear, and Julius Caesar; and fictional plays, like Romeo and Juliet and The Merchant of Venice. Shakespeare invented few, if any, of the plots or stories upon which his dramas are founded, but borrowed them freely, after the custom of his age, wherever he found them. For his legendary and historical material he depended, largely on Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, and on North's translation of Plutarch's famous Lives.
A full half of his plays are fictional, and in these he used the most popular romances of the day, seeming to depend most on the Italian story-tellers. Only two or three of his plots, as in Love's Labour's Lost and Merry Wives of Windsor, are said to be original, and even these are doubtful. Occasionally Shakespeare made over an older play, as in Henry VI, Comedy of Errors, and Hamlet; and in one instance at least he seized upon an incident of shipwreck in which London was greatly interested, and made out of it the original and fascinating play of The Tempest, in much the same spirit which leads our modern playwrights when they dramatize a popular novel or a war story to catch the public fancy.
CLASSIFICATION ACCORDING TO DRAMATIC TYPE. Shakespeare's dramas are usually divided into three classes, called tragedies, comedies, and historical plays. Strictly speaking the drama has but two divisions, tragedy and comedy, in which are included the many subordinate forms of tragi-comedy, melodrama, lyric drama (opera), farce, etc. A tragedy is a drama in which the principal characters are involved in desperate circumstances or led by overwhelming passions. It is invariably serious and dignified. The movement is always stately, but grows more and more rapid as it approaches the climax; and the end is always calamitous, resulting in death or dire misfortune to the principals. As Chaucer's monk says, before he begins to "biwayle in maner of tragedie":
Tragedie is to seyn a certeyn storie Of him that stood in great prosperitee, And is y-fallen out of heigh degree Into miserie, and endeth wrecchedly.
A comedy, on the other hand, is a drama in which the characters are placed in more or less humorous situations. The movement is light and often mirthful, and the play ends in general good will and happiness. The historical drama aims to present some historical age or character, and may be either a comedy or a tragedy. The following list includes the best of Shakespeare's plays in each of the three classes; but the order indicates merely the author's personal opinion of the relative merits of the plays in each class. Thus Merchant of Venice would be the first of the comedies for the beginner to read, and Julius Caesar is an excellent introduction to the historical plays and the tragedies.
Comedies. Merchant of Venice, Midsummer Night's Dream, As You Like It, Winter's Tale, The Tempest, Twelfth Night.
Tragedies. Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Hamlet, King Lear, Othello.
Historical Plays. Julius Caesar, Richard III, Henry IV, Henry V, Coriolanus, Antony and Cleopatra.
DOUBTFUL PLAYS. It is reasonably certain that some of the plays generally attributed to Shakespeare are partly the work of other dramatists. The first of these doubtful plays, often called the Pre-Shakespearian Group, are Titus Andronicus and the first part of Henry VI. Shakespeare probably worked with Marlowe in the two last parts of Henry VI and in Richard III. The three plays, Taming of the Shrew, Timon, and Pericles are only partly Shakespeare's work, but the other authors are unknown. Henry VIII is the work of Fletcher and Shakespeare, opinion being divided as to whether Shakespeare helped Fletcher, or whether it was an unfinished work of Shakespeare which was put into Fletcher's hands for completion. Two Noble Kinsmen is a play not ordinarily found in editions of Shakespeare, but it is often placed among his doubtful works. The greater part of the play is undoubtedly by Fletcher. Edward III is one of several crude plays published at first anonymously and later attributed to Shakespeare by publishers who desired to sell their wares. It contains a few passages that strongly suggest Shakespeare; but the external evidence is all against his authorship.
SHAKESPEARE'S POEMS. It is generally asserted that, if Shakespeare had written no plays, his poems alone would have given him a commanding place in the Elizabethan Age. Nevertheless, in the various histories of our literature there is apparent a desire to praise and pass over all but the Sonnets as rapidly as possible; and the reason may be stated frankly. His two long poems, "Venus and Adonis" and "The Rape of Lucrece," contain much poetic fancy; but it must be said of both that the subjects are unpleasant, and that they are dragged out to unnecessary length in order to show the play of youthful imagination. They were extremely popular in Shakespeare's day, but in comparison with his great dramatic works these poems are now of minor importance.
Shakespeare's Sonnets, one hundred and fifty-four in number, are the only direct expression of the poet's own feelings that we possess; for his plays are the most impersonal in all literature. They were published together in 1609; but if they had any unity in Shakespeare's mind, their plan and purpose are hard to discover. By some critics they are regarded as mere literary exercises; by others as the expression of some personal grief during the third period of the poet's literary career. Still others, taking a hint from the sonnet beginning "Two loves I have, of comfort and despair," divide them all into two classes, addressed to a man who was Shakespeare's friend, and to a woman who disdained his love. The reader may well avoid such classifications and read a few sonnets, like the twenty- ninth, for instance, and let them speak their own message. A few are trivial and artificial enough, suggesting the elaborate exercises of a piano player; but the majority are remarkable for their subtle thought and exquisite expression. Here and there is one, like that beginning
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought I summon up remembrance of things past,
which will haunt the reader long afterwards, like the remembrance of an old German melody.
SHAKESPEARE'S PLACE AND INFLUENCE. Shakespeare holds, by general acclamation, the foremost place in the world's literature, and his overwhelming greatness renders it difficult to criticise or even to praise him. Two poets only, Homer and Dante, have been named with him; but each of these wrote within narrow limits, while Shakespeare's genius included all the world of nature and of men. In a word, he is the universal poet. To study nature in his works is like exploring a new and beautiful country; to study man in his works is like going into a great city, viewing the motley crowd as one views a great masquerade in which past and present mingle freely and familiarly, as if the dead were all living again. And the marvelous thing, in this masquerade of all sorts and conditions of men, is that Shakespeare lifts the mask from every face, lets us see the man as he is in his own soul, and shows us in each one some germ of good, some "soul of goodness" even in things evil. For Shakespeare strikes no uncertain note, and raises no doubts to add to the burden of your own. Good always overcomes evil in the long run; and love, faith, work, and duty are the four elements that in all ages make the world right. To criticise or praise the genius that creates these men and women is to criticise or praise humanity itself.
Of his influence in literature it is equally difficult to speak. Goethe expresses the common literary judgment when he says, "I do not remember that any book or person or event in my life ever made so great an impression upon me as the plays of Shakespeare." His influence upon our own language and thought is beyond calculation. Shakespeare and the King James Bible are the two great conservators of the English speech; and one who habitually reads them finds himself possessed of a style and vocabulary that are beyond criticism. Even those who read no Shakespeare are still unconsciously guided by him, for his thought and expression have so pervaded our life and literature that it is impossible, so long as one speaks the English language, to escape his influence.
His life was gentle, and the elements So mixed in him, that Nature might stand up And say to all the world, "This was a man!"
V. SHAKESPEARE'S CONTEMPORARIES AND SUCCESSORS IN THE DRAMA
DECLINE OF THE DRAMA. It was inevitable that the drama should decline after Shakespeare, for the simple reason that there was no other great enough to fill his place. Aside from this, other causes were at work, and the chief of these was at the very source of the Elizabethan dramas. It must be remembered that our first playwrights wrote to please their audiences; that the drama rose in England because of the desire of a patriotic people to see something of the stirring life of the times reflected on the stage. For there were no papers or magazines in those days, and people came to the theaters not only to be amused but to be informed. Like children, they wanted to see a story acted; and like men, they wanted to know what it meant. Shakespeare fulfilled their desire. He gave them their story, and his genius was great enough to show in every play not only their own life and passions but something of the meaning of all life, and of that eternal justice which uses the war of human passions for its own great ends. Thus good and evil mingle freely in his dramas; but the evil is never attractive, and the good triumphs as inevitably as fate. Though his language is sometimes coarse, we are to remember that it was the custom of his age to speak somewhat coarsely, and that in language, as in thought and feeling, Shakespeare is far above most of his contemporaries.
With his successors all this was changed. The audience itself had gradually changed, and in place of plain people eager for a story and for information, we see a larger and larger proportion of those who went to the play because they had nothing else to do. They wanted amusement only, and since they had blunted by idleness the desire for simple and wholesome amusement, they called for something more sensational. Shakespeare's successors catered to the depraved tastes of this new audience. They lacked not only Shakespeare's genius, but his broad charity, his moral insight into life. With the exception of Ben Jonson, they neglected the simple fact that man in his deepest nature is a moral being, and that only a play which satisfies the whole nature of man by showing the triumph of the moral law can ever wholly satisfy an audience or a people. Beaumont and Fletcher, forgetting the deep meaning of life, strove for effect by increasing the sensationalism of their plays; Webster reveled in tragedies of blood and thunder; Massinger and Ford made another step downward, producing evil and licentious scenes for their own sake, making characters and situations more immoral till, notwithstanding these dramatists' ability, the stage had become insincere, frivolous, and bad. Ben Jonson's ode, "Come Leave the Loathed Stage," is the judgment of a large and honest nature grown weary of the plays and the players of the time. We read with a sense of relief that in 1642, only twenty-six years after Shakespeare's death, both houses of Parliament voted to close the theaters as breeders of lies and immorality.
BEN JONSON (1573?-1637)
Personally Jonson is the most commanding literary figure among the Elizabethans. For twenty-five years he was the literary dictator of London, the chief of all the wits that gathered nightly at the old Devil Tavern. With his great learning, his ability, and his commanding position as poet laureate, he set himself squarely against his contemporaries and the romantic tendency of the age. For two things he fought bravely,—to restore the classic form of the drama, and to keep the stage from its downward course. Apparently he failed; the romantic school fixed its hold more strongly than ever; the stage went swiftly to an end as sad as that of the early dramatists. Nevertheless his influence lived and grew more powerful till, aided largely by French influence, it resulted in the so-called classicism of the eighteenth century.
LIFE. Jonson was born at Westminster about the year 1573. His father, an educated gentleman, had his property confiscated and was himself thrown into prison by Queen Mary; so we infer the family was of some prominence. From his mother he received certain strong characteristics, and by a single short reference in Jonson's works we are led to see the kind of woman she was. It is while Jonson is telling Drummond of the occasion when he was thrown into prison, because some passages in the comedy of Eastward Ho! gave offense to King James, and he was in danger of a horrible death, after having his ears and nose cut off. He tells us how, after his pardon, he was banqueting with his friends, when his "old mother" came in and showed a paper full of "lusty strong poison," which she intended to mix with his drink just before the execution. And to show that she "was no churl," she intended first to drink of the poison herself. The incident is all the more suggestive from the fact that Chapman and Marston, one his friend and the other his enemy, were first cast into prison as the authors of Eastward Ho! and rough Ben Jonson at once declared that he too had had a small hand in the writing and went to join them in prison.
Jonson's father came out of prison, having given up his estate, and became a minister. He died just before the son's birth, and two years later the mother married a bricklayer of London. The boy was sent to a private school, and later made his own way to Westminster School, where the submaster, Camden, struck by the boy's ability, taught and largely supported him. For a short time he may have studied at the university in Cambridge; but his stepfather soon set him to learning the bricklayer's trade. He ran away from this, and went with the English army to fight Spaniards in the Low Countries. His best known exploit there was to fight a duel between the lines with one of the enemy's soldiers, while both armies looked on. Jonson killed his man, and took his arms, and made his way back to his own lines in a way to delight the old Norman troubadours. He soon returned to England, and married precipitately when only nineteen or twenty years old. Five years later we find him employed, like Shakespeare, as actor and reviser of old plays in the theater. Thereafter his life is a varied and stormy one. He killed an actor in a duel, and only escaped hanging by pleading "benefit of clergy"; but he lost all his poor goods and was branded for life on his left thumb. In his first great play, Every Man in His Humour (1598), Shakespeare acted one of the parts; and that may have been the beginning of their long friendship. Other plays followed rapidly. Upon the accession of James, Jonson's masques won him royal favor, and he was made poet laureate. He now became undoubted leader of the literary men of his time, though his rough honesty and his hatred of the literary tendencies of the age made him quarrel with nearly all of them. In 1616, soon after Shakespeare's retirement, he stopped writing for the stage and gave himself up to study and serious work. In 1618 he traveled on foot to Scotland, where he visited Drummond, from whom we have the scant records of his varied life. His impressions of this journey, called Foot Pilgrimage, were lost in a fire before publication. Thereafter he produced less, and his work declined in vigor; but spite of growing poverty and infirmity we notice in his later work, especially in the unfinished Sad Shepherd, a certain mellowness and tender human sympathy which were lacking in his earlier productions. He died poverty stricken in 1637. Unlike Shakespeare's, his death was mourned as a national calamity, and he was buried with all honor in Westminster Abbey. On his grave was laid a marble slab, on which the words "O rare Ben Jonson" were his sufficient epitaph.
WORKS OF BEN JONSON. Jonson's work is in strong contrast with that of Shakespeare and of the later Elizabethan dramatists. Alone he fought against the romantic tendency of the age, and to restore the classic standards. Thus the whole action of his drama usually covers only a few hours, or a single day. He never takes liberties with historical facts, as Shakespeare does, but is accurate to the smallest detail. His dramas abound in classical learning, are carefully and logically constructed, and comedy and tragedy are kept apart, instead of crowding each other as they do in Shakespeare and in life. In one respect his comedies are worthy of careful reading,—they are intensely realistic, presenting men and women of the time exactly as they were. From a few of Jonson's scenes we can understand—better than from all the plays of Shakespeare—how men talked and acted during the Age of Elizabeth.
Jonson's first comedy, Every Man in His Humour, is a key to all his dramas. The word "humour" in his age stood for some characteristic whim or quality of society. Jonson gives to his leading character some prominent humor, exaggerates it, as the cartoonist enlarges the most characteristic feature of a face, and so holds it before our attention that all other qualities are lost sight of; which is the method that Dickens used later in many of his novels. Every Man in His Humour was the first of three satires. Its special aim was to ridicule the humors of the city. The second, Cynthia's Revels, satirizes the humors of the court; while the third, The Poetaster, the result of a quarrel with his contemporaries, was leveled at the false standards of the poets of the age.
The three best known of Jonson's comedies are Volpone, or the Fox, The Alchemist, and Epicoene, or the Silent Woman. Volpone is a keen and merciless analysis of a man governed by an overwhelming love of money for its own sake. The first words in the first scene are a key to the whole comedy:
(Volpone) Good morning to the day; and next, my gold! Open the shrine that I may see my saint. (Mosca withdraws a curtain and discovers piles of gold, plate, jewels, etc.) Hail the world's soul, and mine!
Volpone's method of increasing his wealth is to play upon the avarice of men. He pretends to be at the point of death, and his "suitors," who know his love of gain and that he has no heirs, endeavor hypocritically to sweeten his last moments by giving him rich presents, so that he will leave them all his wealth. The intrigues of these suitors furnish the story of the play, and show to what infamous depths avarice will lead a man.
The Alchemist is a study of quackery on one side and of gullibility on the other, founded on the mediaeval idea of the philosopher's stone, and applies as well to the patent medicines and get-rich-quick schemes of our day as to the peculiar forms of quackery with which Jonson was more familiar. In plot and artistic construction The Alchemist is an almost perfect specimen of the best English drama. It has some remarkably good passages, and is the most readable of Jonson's plays.
Epicoene, or the Silent Woman, is a prose comedy exceedingly well constructed, full of life, abounding in fun and unexpected situations. Here is a brief outline from which the reader may see of what materials Jonson made up his comedies.
The chief character is Morose, a rich old codger whose humor is a horror of noise. He lives in a street so narrow that it will admit no carriages; he pads the doors; plugs the keyhole; puts mattresses on the stairs. He dismisses a servant who wears squeaky boots; makes all the rest go about in thick stockings; and they must answer him by signs, since he cannot bear to hear anybody but himself talk. He disinherits his poor nephew Eugenie, and, to make sure that the latter will not get any money out of him, resolves to marry. His confidant in this delicate matter is Cutbeard the barber, who, unlike his kind, never speaks unless spoken to, and does not even knick his scissors as he works. Cutbeard (who is secretly in league with the nephew) tells him of Epicoene, a rare, silent woman, and Morose is so delighted with her silence that he resolves to marry her on the spot. Cutbeard produces a parson with a bad cold, who can speak only in a whisper, to marry them; and when the parson coughs after the ceremony Morose demands back five shillings of the fee. To save it the parson coughs more, and is hurriedly bundled out of the house. The silent woman finds her voice immediately after the marriage, begins to talk loudly and to make reforms in the household, driving Morose to distraction. A noisy dinner party from a neighboring house, with drums and trumpets and a quarreling man and wife, is skillfully guided in at this moment to celebrate the wedding. Morose flees for his life, and is found perched like a monkey on a crossbeam in the attic, with all his nightcaps tied over his ears. He seeks a divorce, but is driven frantic by the loud arguments of a lawyer and a divine, who are no other than Cutbeard and a sea captain disguised. When Morose is past all hope the nephew offers to release him from his wife and her noisy friends if he will allow him five hundred pounds a year. Morose offers him anything, everything, to escape his torment, and signs a deed to that effect. Then comes the surprise of the play when Eugenie whips the wig from Epicoene and shows a boy in disguise.
It will be seen that the Silent Woman, with its rapid action and its unexpected situations, offers an excellent opportunity for the actors; but the reading of the play, as of most of Jonson's comedies, is marred by low intrigues showing a sad state of morals among the upper classes.
Besides these, and many other less known comedies, Jonson wrote two great tragedies, Sejanus (1603) and Catiline (1611), upon severe classical lines. After ceasing his work for the stage, Jonson wrote many masques in honor of James I and of Queen Anne, to be played amid elaborate scenery by the gentlemen of the court. The best of these are "The Satyr," "The Penates," "Masque of Blackness," "Masque of Beauty," "Hue and Cry after Cupid," and "The Masque of Queens." In all his plays Jonson showed a strong lyric gift, and some of his little poems and songs, like "The Triumph of Charis," "Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes," and "To the Memory of my Beloved Mother," are now better known than his great dramatic works. A single volume of prose, called Timber, or Discoveries made upon Men and Matter, is an interesting collection of short essays which are more like Bacon's than any other work of the age.
BEAUMONT AND FLETCHER. The work of these two men is so closely interwoven that, though Fletcher outlived Beaumont by nine years and the latter had no hand in some forty of the plays that bear their joint names, we still class them together, and only scholars attempt to separate their works so as to give each writer his due share. Unlike most of the Elizabethan dramatists, they both came from noble and cultured families and were university trained. Their work, in strong contrast with Jonson's, is intensely romantic, and in it all, however coarse or brutal the scene, there is still, as Emerson pointed out, the subtle "recognition of gentility."
Beaumont (1584-1616) was the brother of Sir John Beaumont of Leicestershire. From Oxford he came to London to study law, but soon gave it up to write for the stage. Fletcher (1579-1625) was the son of the bishop of London, and shows in all his work the influence of his high social position and of his Cambridge education. The two dramatists met at the Mermaid tavern under Ben Jonson's leadership and soon became inseparable friends, living and working together. Tradition has it that Beaumont supplied the judgment and the solid work of the play, while Fletcher furnished the high-colored sentiment and the lyric poetry, without which an Elizabethan play would have been incomplete. Of their joint plays, the two best known are Philaster, whose old theme, like that of Cymbeline and Griselda, is the jealousy of a lover and the faithfulness of a girl, and The Maid's Tragedy. Concerning Fletcher's work the most interesting literary question is how much did he write of Shakespeare's Henry VIII, and how much did Shakespeare help him in The Two Noble Kinsmen.
JOHN WEBSTER. Of Webster's personal history we know nothing except that he was well known as a dramatist under James I. His extraordinary powers of expression rank him with Shakespeare; but his talent seems to have been largely devoted to the blood-and-thunder play begun by Marlowe. His two best known plays are The White Devil (pub. 1612) and The Duchess of Malfi (pub. 1623). The latter, spite of its horrors, ranks him as one of the greatest masters of English tragedy. It must be remembered that he sought in this play to reproduce the Italian life of the sixteenth century, and for this no imaginary horrors are needed. The history of any Italian court or city in this period furnishes more vice and violence and dishonor than even the gloomy imagination of Webster could conceive. All the so-called blood tragedies of the Elizabethan period, from Thomas Kyd's Spanish Tragedy down, however much they may condemn the brutal taste of the English audiences, are still only so many search lights thrown upon a history of horrible darkness.
THOMAS MIDDLETON (1570?-1627). Middleton is best known by two great plays, The Changeling and Women Beware Women. In poetry and diction they are almost worthy at times to rank with Shakespeare's plays; otherwise, in their sensationalism and unnaturalness they do violence to the moral sense and are repulsive to the modern reader. Two earlier plays, A Trick to catch the Old One, his best comedy, and A Fair Quarrel, his earliest tragedy, are less mature in thought and expression, but more readable, because they seem to express Middleton's own idea of the drama rather than that of the corrupt court and playwrights of his later age.
THOMAS HEYWOOD (1580?-1650?). Heywood's life, of which we know little in detail, covers the whole period of the Elizabethan drama. To the glory of that drama he contributed, according to his own statement, the greater part, at least, of nearly two hundred and twenty plays. It was an enormous amount of work; but he seems to have been animated by the modern literary spirit of following the best market and striking while the financial iron is hot. Naturally good work was impossible, even to genius, under such circumstances, and few of his plays are now known. The two best, if the reader would obtain his own idea of Heywood's undoubted ability, are A Woman killed with Kindness, a pathetic story of domestic life, and The Fair Maid of the West, a melodrama with plenty of fighting of the popular kind.
THOMAS DEKKER (1570-?). Dekker is in pleasing contrast with most of the dramatists of the time. All we know of him must be inferred from his works, which show a happy and sunny nature, pleasant and good to meet. The reader will find the best expression of Dekker's personality and erratic genius in The Shoemakers' Holiday, a humorous study of plain working people, and Old Fortunatus, a fairy drama of the wishing hat and no end of money. Whether intended for children or not, it had the effect of charming the elders far more than the young people, and the play became immensely popular.
MASSINGER, FORD, SHIRLEY. These three men mark the end of the Elizabethan drama. Their work, done largely while the struggle was on between the actors and the corrupt court, on one side, and the Puritans on the other, shows a deliberate turning away not only from Puritan standards but from the high ideals of their own art to pander to the corrupt taste of the upper classes.
Philip Massinger (1584-1640) was a dramatic poet of great natural ability; but his plots and situations are usually so strained and artificial that the modern reader finds no interest in them. In his best comedy, A New Way to Pay Old Debts, he achieved great popularity and gave us one figure, Sir Giles Overreach, which is one of the typical characters of the English stage. His best plays are The Great Duke of Florence, The Virgin Martyr, and The Maid of Honour.
John Ford (1586-1642?) and James Shirley (1596-1666) have left us little of permanent literary value, and their works are read only by those who wish to understand the whole rise and fall of the drama. An occasional scene in Ford's plays is as strong as anything that the Elizabethan Age produced; but as a whole the plays are unnatural and tiresome. Probably his best play is The Broken Heart (1633). Shirley was given to imitation of his predecessors, and his very imitation is characteristic of an age which had lost its inspiration. A single play, Hyde Park, with its frivolous, realistic dialogue, is sometimes read for its reflection of the fashionable gossipy talk of the day. Long before Shirley's death the actors said, "Farewell! Othello's occupation's gone." Parliament voted to close the theaters, thereby saving the drama from a more inglorious death by dissipation.
VI. THE PROSE WRITERS
FRANCIS BACON (1561-1626)
In Bacon we see one of those complex and contradictory natures which are the despair of the biographer. If the writer be an admirer of Bacon, he finds too much that he must excuse or pass over in silence; and if he takes his stand on the law to condemn the avarice and dishonesty of his subject, he finds enough moral courage and nobility to make him question the justice of his own judgment. On the one hand is rugged Ben Jonson's tribute to his power and ability, and on the other Hallam's summary that he was "a man who, being intrusted with the highest gifts of Heaven, habitually abused them for the poorest purposes of earth—hired them out for guineas, places, and titles in the service of injustice, covetousness, and oppression."
Laying aside the opinions of others, and relying only upon the facts of Bacon's life, we find on the one side the politician, cold, calculating, selfish, and on the other the literary and scientific man with an impressive devotion to truth for its own great sake; here a man using questionable means to advance his own interests, and there a man seeking with zeal and endless labor to penetrate the secret ways of Nature, with no other object than to advance the interests of his fellow-men. So, in our ignorance of the secret motives and springs of the man's life, judgment is necessarily suspended. Bacon was apparently one of those double natures that only God is competent to judge, because of the strange mixture of intellectual strength and moral weakness that is in them.
LIFE. Bacon was the son of Sir Nicholas Bacon, Lord Keeper of the Seal, and of the learned Ann Cook, sister-in-law to Lord Burleigh, greatest of the queen's statesmen. From these connections, as well as from native gifts, he was attracted to the court, and as a child was called by Elizabeth her "Little Lord Keeper." At twelve he went to Cambridge, but left the university after two years, declaring the whole plan of education to be radically wrong, and the system of Aristotle, which was the basis of all philosophy in those days, to be a childish delusion, since in the course of centuries it had "produced no fruit, but only a jungle of dry and useless branches." Strange, even for a sophomore of fourteen, thus to condemn the whole system of the universities; but such was the boy, and the system! Next year, in order to continue his education, he accompanied the English ambassador to France, where he is said to have busied himself chiefly with the practical studies of statistics and diplomacy.
Two years later he was recalled to London by the death of his father. Without money, and naturally with expensive tastes, he applied to his Uncle Burleigh for a lucrative position. It was in this application that he used the expression, so characteristic of the Elizabethan Age, that he "had taken all knowledge for his province." Burleigh, who misjudged him as a dreamer and self-seeker, not only refused to help him at the court but successfully opposed his advancement by Elizabeth. Bacon then took up the study of law, and was admitted to the bar in 1582. That he had not lost his philosophy in the mazes of the law is shown by his tract, written about this time, "On the Greatest Birth of Time," which was a plea for his inductive system of philosophy, reasoning from many facts to one law, rather than from an assumed law to particular facts, which was the deductive method that had been in use for centuries. In his famous plea for progress Bacon demanded three things: the free investigation of nature, the discovery of facts instead of theories, and the verification of results by experiment rather than by argument. In our day these are the A, B, C of science, but in Bacon's time they seemed revolutionary.
As a lawyer he became immediately successful; his knowledge and power of pleading became widely known, and it was almost at the beginning of his career that Jonson wrote, "The fear of every one that heard him speak was that he should make an end." The publication of his Essays added greatly to his fame; but Bacon was not content. His head was buzzing with huge schemes,—the pacification of unhappy Ireland, the simplification of English law, the reform of the church, the study of nature, the establishment of a new philosophy. Meanwhile, sad to say, he played the game of politics for his personal advantage. He devoted himself to Essex, the young and dangerous favorite of the queen, won his friendship, and then used him skillfully to better his own position. When the earl was tried for treason it was partly, at least, through Bacon's efforts that he was convicted and beheaded; and though Bacon claims to have been actuated by a high sense of justice, we are not convinced that he understood either justice or friendship in appearing as queen's counsel against the man who had befriended him. His coldbloodedness and lack of moral sensitiveness appear even in his essays on "Love" and "Friendship." Indeed, we can understand his life only upon the theory that his intellectuality left him cold and dead to the higher sentiments of our humanity.
During Elizabeth's reign Bacon had sought repeatedly for high office, but had been blocked by Burleigh and perhaps also by the queen's own shrewdness in judging men. With the advent of James I (1603) Bacon devoted himself to the new ruler and rose rapidly in favor. He was knighted, and soon afterwards attained another object of his ambition in marrying a rich wife. The appearance of his great work, the Advancement of Learning, in 1605, was largely the result of the mental stimulus produced by his change in fortune. In 1613 he was made attorney-general, and speedily made enemies by using the office to increase his personal ends. He justified himself in his course by his devotion to the king's cause, and by the belief that the higher his position and the more ample his means the more he could do for science. It was in this year that Bacon wrote his series of State Papers, which show a marvelous grasp of the political tendencies of his age. Had his advice been followed, it would have certainly averted the struggle between king and parliament that followed speedily. In 1617 he was appointed to his father's office, Lord Keeper of the Seal, and the next year to the high office of Lord Chancellor. With this office he received the title of Baron Verulam, and later of Viscount St. Alban, which he affixed with some vanity to his literary work. Two years later appeared his greatest work, the Novum Organum, called after Aristotle's famous Organon.
Bacon did not long enjoy his political honors. The storm which had been long gathering against James's government broke suddenly upon Bacon's head. When Parliament assembled in 1621 it vented its distrust of James and his favorite Villiers by striking unexpectedly at their chief adviser. Bacon was sternly accused of accepting bribes, and the evidence was so great that he confessed that there was much political corruption abroad in the land, that he was personally guilty of some of it, and he threw himself upon the mercy of his judges. Parliament at that time was in no mood for mercy. Bacon was deprived of his office and was sentenced to pay the enormous fine of 40,000 pounds, to be imprisoned during the king's pleasure, and thereafter to be banished forever from Parliament and court. Though the imprisonment lasted only a few days and the fine was largely remitted, Bacon's hopes and schemes for political honors were ended; and it is at this point of appalling adversity that the nobility in the man's nature asserts itself strongly. If the reader be interested to apply a great man's philosophy to his own life, he will find the essay, "Of Great Place," most interesting in this connection.
Bacon now withdrew permanently from public life, and devoted his splendid ability to literary and scientific work. He completed the Essays, experimented largely, wrote history, scientific articles, and one scientific novel, and made additions to his Instauratio Magna, the great philosophical work which was never finished. In the spring of 1626, while driving in a snowstorm, it occurred to him that snow might be used as a preservative instead of salt. True to his own method of arriving at truth, he stopped at the first house, bought a fowl, and proceeded to test his theory. The experiment chilled him, and he died soon after from the effects of his exposure. As Macaulay wrote, "the great apostle of experimental philosophy was destined to be its martyr."
WORKS OF BACON. Bacon's philosophic works, The Advancement of Learning and the Novum Organum, will be best understood in connection with the Instauratio Magna, or The Great Institution of True Philosophy, of which they were parts. The Instauratio was never completed, but the very idea of the work was magnificent,—to sweep away the involved philosophy of the schoolmen and the educational systems of the universities, and to substitute a single great work which should be a complete education, "a rich storehouse for the glory of the Creator and for the relief of man's estate." The object of this education was to bring practical results to all the people, instead of a little selfish culture and much useless speculation, which, he conceived, were the only products of the universities.
THE INSTAURATIO MAGNA. This was the most ambitious, though it is not the best known, of Bacon's works. For the insight it gives us into the author's mind, we note here a brief outline of his subject. It was divided into six parts, as follows:
1. Partitiones Scientiarum. This was to be a classification and summary of all human knowledge. Philosophy and all speculation must be cast out and the natural sciences established as the basis of all education. The only part completed was The Advancement of Learning, which served as an introduction.
2. Novum Organum, or the "new instrument," that is, the use of reason and experiment instead of the old Aristotelian logic. To find truth one must do two things: (a) get rid of all prejudices or idols, as Bacon called them. These "idols" are four: "idols of the tribe," that is, prejudices due to common methods of thought among all races; "idols of the cave or den," that is, personal peculiarities and prejudices; "idols of the market place," due to errors of language; and "idols of the theater," which are the unreliable traditions of men. (b) After discarding the above "idols" we must interrogate nature; must collect facts by means of numerous experiments, arrange them in order, and then determine the law that underlies them.
It will be seen at a glance that the above is the most important of Bacon's works. The Organum was to be in several books, only two of which he completed, and these he wrote and rewrote twelve times until they satisfied him.
3. Historic Naturalis et Experimentalis, the study of all the phenomena of nature. Of four parts of this work which he completed, one of them at least, the Sylva Sylvarum, is decidedly at variance with his own idea of fact and experiment. It abounds in fanciful explanations, more worthy of the poetic than of the scientific mind. Nature is seen to be full of desires and instincts; the air "thirsts" for light and fragrance; bodies rise or sink because they have an "appetite" for height or depth; the qualities of bodies are the result of an "essence," so that when we discover the essences of gold and silver and diamonds it will be a simple matter to create as much of them as we may need.
4. Scala Intellectus, or "Ladder of the Mind," is the rational application of the Organum to all problems. By it the mind should ascend step by step from particular facts and instances to general laws and abstract principles.
5. Prodromi, "Prophecies or Anticipations," is a list of discoveries that men shall make when they have applied Bacon's methods of study and experimentation.
6. Philosophia Secunda, which was to be a record of practical results of the new philosophy when the succeeding ages should have applied it faithfully.
It is impossible to regard even the outline of such a vast work without an involuntary thrill of admiration for the bold and original mind which conceived it. "We may," said Bacon, "make no despicable beginnings. The destinies of the human race must complete the work ... for upon this will depend not only a speculative good but all the fortunes of mankind and all their power." There is the unconscious expression of one of the great minds of the world. Bacon was like one of the architects of the Middle Ages, who drew his plans for a mighty cathedral, perfect in every detail from the deep foundation stone to the cross on the highest spire, and who gave over his plans to the builders, knowing that, in his own lifetime, only one tiny chapel would be completed; but knowing also that the very beauty of his plans would appeal to others, and that succeeding ages would finish the work which he dared to begin.
THE ESSAYS. Bacon's famous Essays is the one work which will interest all students of our literature. His Instauratio was in Latin, written mostly by paid helpers from short English abstracts. He regarded Latin as the only language worthy of a great work; but the world neglected his Latin to seize upon his English,—marvelous English, terse, pithy, packed with thought, in an age that used endless circumlocutions. The first ten essays, published in 1597, were brief notebook jottings of Bacon's observations. Their success astonished the author, but not till fifteen years later were they republished and enlarged. Their charm grew upon Bacon himself, and during his retirement he gave more thought to the wonderful language which he had at first despised as much as Aristotle's philosophy. In 1612 appeared a second edition containing thirty-eight essays, and in 1625, the year before his death, he republished the Essays in their present form, polishing and enlarging the original ten to fifty-eight, covering a wide variety of subjects suggested by the life of men around him.
Concerning the best of these essays there are as many opinions as there are readers, and what one gets out of them depends largely upon his own thought and intelligence. In this respect they are like that Nature to which Bacon directed men's thoughts. The whole volume may be read through in an evening; but after one has read them a dozen times he still finds as many places to pause and reflect as at the first reading. If one must choose out of such a storehouse, we would suggest "Studies," "Goodness," "Riches," "Atheism," "Unity in Religion," "Adversity," "Friendship," and "Great Place" as an introduction to Bacon's worldly-wise philosophy.
MISCELLANEOUS WORKS. Other works of Bacon are interesting as a revelation of the Elizabethan mind, rather than because of any literary value. The New Atlantis is a kind of scientific novel describing another Utopia as seen by Bacon. The inhabitants of Atlantis have banished Philosophy and applied Bacon's method of investigating Nature, using the results to better their own condition. They have a wonderful civilization, in which many of our later discoveries—academies of the sciences, observatories, balloons, submarines, the modification of species, and several others—were foreshadowed with a strange mixture of cold reason and poetic intuition. De Sapientia Veterum is a fanciful attempt to show the deep meaning underlying ancient myths,—a meaning which would have astonished the myth makers themselves. The History of Henry VII is a calm, dispassionate, and remarkably accurate history, which makes us regret that Bacon did not do more historical work. Besides these are metrical versions of certain Psalms—which are valuable, in view of the controversy anent Shakespeare's plays, for showing Bacon's utter inability to write poetry—and a large number of letters and state papers showing the range and power of his intellect.
BACON'S PLACE AND WORK. Although Bacon was for the greater part of his life a busy man of affairs, one cannot read his work without becoming conscious of two things,—a perennial freshness, which the world insists upon in all literature that is to endure, and an intellectual power which marks him as one of the great minds of the world.
Of late the general tendency is to give less and less prominence to his work in science and philosophy; but criticism of his Instauratio, in view of his lofty aim, is of small consequence. It is true that his "science" to-day seems woefully inadequate; true also that, though he sought to discover truth, he thought perhaps to monopolize it, and so looked with the same suspicion upon Copernicus as upon the philosophers. The practical man who despises philosophy has simply misunderstood the thing he despises. In being practical and experimental in a romantic age he was not unique, as is often alleged, but only expressed the tendency of the English mind in all ages. Three centuries earlier the monk Roger Bacon did more practical experimenting than the Elizabethan sage; and the latter's famous "idols" are strongly suggestive of the former's "Four Sources of Human Ignorance." Although Bacon did not make any of the scientific discoveries at which he aimed, yet the whole spirit of his work, especially of the Organum, has strongly influenced science in the direction of accurate observation and of carefully testing every theory by practical experiment. "He that regardeth the clouds shall not sow," said a wise writer of old; and Bacon turned men's thoughts from the heavens above, with which they had been too busy, to the earth beneath, which they had too much neglected. In an age when men were busy with romance and philosophy, he insisted that the first object of education is to make a man familiar with his natural environment; from books he turned to men, from theory to fact, from philosophy to nature,— and that is perhaps his greatest contribution to life and literature. Like Moses upon Pisgah, he stood high enough above his fellows to look out over a promised land, which his people would inherit, but into which he himself might never enter.
RICHARD HOOKER (1554?-1600) In strong contrast with Bacon is Richard Hooker, one of the greatest prose writers of the Elizabethan Age. One must read the story of his life, an obscure and lowly life animated by a great spirit, as told by Izaak Walton, to appreciate the full force of this contrast. Bacon took all knowledge for his province, but mastered no single part of it. Hooker, taking a single theme, the law and practice of the English Church, so handled it that no scholar even of the present day would dream of superseding it or of building upon any other foundation than that which Hooker laid down. His one great work is The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, a theological and argumentative book; but, entirely apart from its subject, it will be read wherever men desire to hear the power and stateliness of the English language. Here is a single sentence, remarkable not only for its perfect form but also for its expression of the reverence for law which lies at the heart of Anglo-Saxon civilization:
Of law there can be no less acknowledged than that her seat is the bosom of God, her voice the harmony of the world; all things in heaven and earth do her homage; the very least as feeling her care, and the greatest as not exempted from her power; both angels and men, and creatures of what condition soever, though each in different sort and manner, yet all with uniform consent admiring her as the mother of their peace and joy.
SIDNEY AND RALEIGH. Among the prose writers of this wonderful literary age there are many others that deserve passing notice, though they fall far below the standard of Bacon and Hooker. Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586), who has already been considered as a poet, is quite as well known by his prose works, Arcadia, a pastoral romance, and the Defense of Poesie, one of our earliest literary essays. Sidney, whom the poet Shelley has eulogized, represents the whole romantic tendency of his age; while Sir Walter Raleigh (1552?-1618) represents its adventurous spirit and activity. The life of Raleigh is an almost incomprehensible mixture of the poet, scholar, and adventurer; now helping the Huguenots or the struggling Dutch in Europe, and now leading an expedition into the unmapped wilds of the New World; busy here with court intrigues, and there with piratical attempts to capture the gold-laden Spanish galleons; one moment sailing the high seas in utter freedom, and the next writing history and poetry to solace his imprisonment. Such a life in itself is a volume far more interesting than anything that he wrote. He is the restless spirit of the Elizabethan Age personified.
Raleigh's chief prose works are the Discoverie of Guiana, a work which would certainly have been interesting enough had he told simply what he saw, but which was filled with colonization schemes and visions of an El Dorado to fill the eyes and ears of the credulous; and the History of the World, written to occupy his prison hours. The history is a wholly untrustworthy account of events from creation to the downfall of the Macedonian Empire. It is interesting chiefly for its style, which is simple and dignified, and for the flashes of wit and poetry that break into the fantastic combination of miracles, traditions, hearsay, and state records which he called history. In the conclusion is the famous apostrophe to Death, which suggests what Raleigh might have done had he lived less strenuously and written more carefully.
O eloquent, just, and mighty Death! whom none could advise thou hast persuaded; what none hath dared thou hast done; and whom all the world hath flattered thou only hast cast out of the world and despised; thou hast drawn together all the star-stretched greatness, all the pride, cruelty, and ambition of man, and covered it all over with these two narrow words, Hic jacet!
JOHN FOXE (1516-1587). Foxe will be remembered always for his famous Book of Martyrs, a book that our elders gave to us on Sundays when we were young, thinking it good discipline for us to afflict our souls when we wanted to be roaming the sunlit fields, or when in our enforced idleness we would, if our own taste in the matter had been consulted, have made good shift to be quiet and happy with Robinson Crusoe. So we have a gloomy memory of Foxe, and something of a grievance, which prevent a just appreciation of his worth.
Foxe had been driven out of England by the Marian persecutions, and in a wandering but diligent life on the Continent he conceived the idea of writing a history of the persecutions of the church from the earliest days to his own. The part relating to England and Scotland was published, in Latin, in 1559 under a title as sonorous and impressive as the Roman office for the dead,—Rerum in Ecclesia Gestarum Maximarumque per Europam Persecutionum Commentarii. On his return to England Foxe translated this work, calling it the Acts and Monuments; but it soon became known as the Book of Martyrs, and so it will always be called. Foxe's own bitter experience causes him to write with more heat and indignation than his saintly theme would warrant, and the "holy tone" sometimes spoils a narrative that would be impressive in its bare simplicity. Nevertheless the book has made for itself a secure place in our literature. It is strongest in its record of humble men, like Rowland Taylor and Thomas Hawkes, whose sublime heroism, but for this narrative, would have been lost amid the great names and the great events that fill the Elizabethan Age.
CAMDEN AND KNOX. Two historians, William Camden and John Knox, stand out prominently among the numerous historical writers of the age. Camden's Britannia (1586) is a monumental work, which marks the beginning of true antiquarian research in the field of history; and his Annals of Queen Elizabeth is worthy of a far higher place than has thus far been given it. John Knox, the reformer, in his History of the Reformation in Scotland, has some very vivid portraits of his helpers and enemies. The personal and aggressive elements enter too strongly for a work of history; but the autobiographical parts show rare literary power. His account of his famous interview with Mary Queen of Scots is clear-cut as a cameo, and shows the man's extraordinary power better than a whole volume of biography. Such scenes make one wish that more of his time had been given to literary work, rather than to the disputes and troubles of his own Scotch kirk.
HAKLUYT AND PURCHAS. Two editors of this age have made for themselves an enviable place in our literature. They are Richard Hakluyt (1552?-1616) and Samuel Purchas (1575?-1626). Hakluyt was a clergyman who in the midst of his little parish set himself to achieve two great patriotic ends,—to promote the wealth and commerce of his country, and to preserve the memory of all his countrymen who added to the glory of the realm by their travels and explorations. To further the first object he concerned himself deeply with the commercial interests of the East India Company, with Raleigh's colonizing plans in Virginia, and with a translation of De Soto's travels in America. To further the second he made himself familiar with books of voyages in all foreign languages and with the brief reports of explorations of his own countrymen. His Principal Navigations, Voyages, and Discoveries of the English Nation, in three volumes, appeared first in 1589, and a second edition followed in 1598-1600. The first volume tells of voyages to the north; the second to India and the East; the third, which is as large as the other two, to the New World. With the exception of the very first voyage, that of King Arthur to Iceland in 517, which is founded on a myth, all the voyages are authentic accounts of the explorers themselves, and are immensely interesting reading even at the present day. No other book of travels has so well expressed the spirit and energy of the English race, or better deserves a place in our literature.
Samuel Purchas, who was also a clergyman, continued the work of Hakluyt, using many of the latter's unpublished manuscripts and condensing the records of numerous other voyages. His first famous book, Purchas, His Pilgrimage, appeared in 1613, and was followed by Hakluytus Posthumus, or Purchas His Pilgrimes, in 1625. The very name inclines one to open the book with pleasure, and when one follows his inclination—which is, after all, one of the best guides in literature—he is rarely disappointed. Though it falls far below the standard of Hakluyt, both in accuracy and literary finish, there is still plenty to make one glad that the book was written and that he can now comfortably follow Purchas on his pilgrimage.
THOMAS NORTH. Among the translators of the Elizabethan Age Sir Thomas North (1535?-1601?) is most deserving of notice because of his version of Plutarch's Lives (1579) from which Shakespeare took the characters and many of the incidents for three great Roman plays. Thus in North we read:
Caesar also had Cassius in great jealousy and suspected him much: whereupon he said on a time to his friends: "What will Cassius do, think ye? I like not his pale looks." Another time when Caesar's friends warned him of Antonius and Dolabella, he answered them again, "I never reckon of them; but these pale-visaged and carrion lean people, I fear them most," meaning Brutus and Cassius.
Shakespeare merely touches such a scene with the magic of his genius, and his Caesar speaks:
Let me have men about me that are fat: Sleek-headed men, and such as sleep o' nights. Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look: He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.
A careful reading of North's Plutarch and then of the famous Roman plays shows to how great an extent Shakespeare was dependent upon his obscure contemporary.
North's translation, to which we owe so many heroic models in our literature, was probably made not from Plutarch but from Amyot's excellent French translation. Nevertheless he reproduces the spirit of the original, and notwithstanding our modern and more accurate translations, he remains the most inspiring interpreter of the great biographer whom Emerson calls "the historian of heroism."
SUMMARY OF THE AGE OF ELIZABETH. This period is generally regarded as the greatest in the history of our literature. Historically, we note in this age the tremendous impetus received from the Renaissance, from the Reformation, and from the exploration of the New World. It was marked by a strong national spirit, by patriotism, by religious tolerance, by social content, by intellectual progress, and by unbounded enthusiasm.
Such an age, of thought, feeling, and vigorous action, finds its best expression in the drama; and the wonderful development of the drama, culminating in Shakespeare, is the most significant characteristic of the Elizabethan period. Though the age produced some excellent prose works, it is essentially an age of poetry; and the poetry is remarkable for its variety, its freshness, its youthful and romantic feeling. Both the poetry and the drama were permeated by Italian influence, which was dominant in English literature from Chaucer to the Restoration. The literature of this age is often called the literature of the Renaissance, though, as we have seen, the Renaissance itself began much earlier, and for a century and a half added very little to our literary possessions.