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Shakespeare: Poet, Dramatist, and Man
Part XI.—The Approach of Tragedy'
By Hamilton W. Mabie
TITH the advent of the seven- utation was firmly established, and he had
teenth century, Shakespeare won the hearts of his contemporaries by
entered the greatest period of the charm of his nature no less than by his life as an artist—the period of the the fascination of his genius.. Tragedies. During eight eventful years His serenity, poise, and sweetness are he was brooding over the deepest problems evidenced not only by his work but by the of human experience, and facing, with representations of his face which remain. searching and unfaltering gaze, the dark. Of these the bust in the chancel of Holy est aspects of life. That this absorption Trinity Church at Stratford, made by in themes which bore their frụit in the Gerard Jonson, a native of Amsterdam, Tragedies was due primarily to a prolonged and a stone-mason of Southwark in the crisis in his own spiritual life is rendered poet's time, and the Droeshout portrait, practically certain by the persistence of which appeared on the title-page of the the somber mood, by the poet's evident First Folio edition of the poet's works, sensitiveness to and dependence upon issued in 1623, were accepted by his friends conditions and experience, and by a series and contemporaries, and must present at of facts of tragical import in the lives least a general resemblance to the poet's of some of his friends. His development features. They are so crude in execution in thought and art was so evidently one that they cannot do justice to the finer of definite progression, of the deepening lines of structure or to the delicacy of of feeling and broadening of vision through coloring of Shakespeare's face and head, the unfolding of his nature, that it is im- but they make the type sufficiently clear. possible to dissociate the marked change They represent a face of singular harmony of mood which came over him about 1600 and regularity of feature, crowned by a from events which touched and searched noble and finely proportioned head. The his own spirit.
eyes were hazel in color, the hair auburn; Until about 1595 Shakespeare had been the expression, deeply meditative and serving his apprenticeship by doing work kindly, was that of a man of thoughtful which was to a considerable extent imita- temper, genial nature, and thorough selftive, and to a larger extent experimental; control. In figure Shakespeare was of he had tried his hand at several kinds of medium stature and compactly built. writing, and had revealed unusual power It is significant that, after the first outof observation, astonishing dexterity of burst of jealousy of the young dramatist's mind, and signal skill in making the tra- growing popularity in Greene's “ A Groatsditional characters of the drama live before worth of Wit Bought with a Million of the eyes and in the imagination of the Repentance," the expressions of Shaketheater-goers who made up his earliest speare's contemporaries indicate unusual constituency. From about 1594 to 1600 warmth of personal regard, culminating he had grown into harmonious and vital in a magnificent eulogy from his greatest relations with his age, he had disclosed rival, and one who had reason to fear him poetic genius of a very high order, and he most. had gone far in his education as a dram- That he was of a social disposition, atist. He had written the Sonnets, and and met men easily and on pleasant terms, he had created Portia, Beatrice, Rosalind, is evident from the extraordinary range Juliet, Romeo, Mercutio, Benedict, Henry of his knowledge of men and manners in V., Falstaff, Shylock, Hotspur, and Dog- the taverns of his time—those predecesberry. If he had died in 1600, his sors of the modern club. That he enplace would have been secure. His rep- joyed the society of men of his own craft Copyright, 1900, by Hamilton W. Mabie.
is evident both from his own disposition
and from the fact that he stood so distinctly in the beginning an intense and passionoutside the literary and theatrical quarrels ate joy, slowly dissolving into a great and of his time. The tradition which asso- bitter agony of spirit; and issuing at last, ciates him with the Mermaid Tavern which through the moralization of a searching stood in Bread Street, not far from Mil- insight, in a larger and deeper harmony ton's birthplace, is entirely credible. with the order of life. This experience,
There he would have found many of the in which friendship and love contended most brilliant men of his time. Beau- for supremacy in his soul; in which he mont's well-known description inclines entered into a new and humiliating conone to believe that under no roof in Eng- sciousness of weakness in his own spirit, land has better talk been heard :
and in which he knew, apparently for the What things have we seen
first time, that bitterness of disenchantDone at the Mermaid? heard words that have ment and disillusion which to a nature of been
such sensitiveness and emotional capacity So nimble and so full of subtle flame, As if that every one from whence they came
as his is the bitterest cup ever held to the Had meant to put his whole wit in a jest, lips, found him gay, light-hearted, buoyant, And had resolved to live a fool the rest full of a creative energy, and radiant with Of his dull life.
the charm and the dreams of youth; it The age was eminently social in instinct left him saddened in spirit, burdened with and habit; society, in the modern sense the consciousness of weakness, face to of the word, was taking shape; and men face with those tragic collisions which found great attraction in the easy inter- seem at times to disclose the play of the course and frank speech of tavern meet- irony of fate, but out of which, in agony ings. Writing much later, but undoubt and apparent defeat, the larger and more edly reporting the impression of Shake inclusive harmony of the individual with speare's contemporaries, Thomas Fuller the divine and the human order of society says, in his “ Worthies :" “ Which two I is secured and disclosed. beheld like a Spanish great gallion and Shakespeare drank deep of the cup of an English man-of-war: Master Johnson suffering before he set in the order of art, (like the former) was built far higher up with a hand at once stern and tender, the in learning ; solid, but slow in his per- colossal sorrows of his kind. Like all formances. Shake-spear, with the Eng- artists of the deepest insight, the keenest lish man-of-war, lesser in bulk, but lighter sensitiveness to beauty, and that subtle in sailing, could turn with all tides, tack and elusive but magical spiritual symabout, and take advantage of all winds, pathy which we call genius, which puts by the quickness of his wit and invention." its possessor in command of the secret
At the end of the sixteenth century experience of his kind, Shakespeare's Shakespeare was on the food-tide of a art waited upon his experience for its prosperous life ; at the very beginning of full capacity of thought and feeling, and the seventeenth century a deep and sig. touched its highest points of achievement nificant change came over his spirit. In only when his own spirit had sounded external affairs his fortunes rose steadily the depths of self-knowledge and of selfuntil his death; but in his spiritual life surrender. In the great Tragedies life momentous experiences changed for a time and art are so completely merged that the current of his thought, and clouded they are no longer separable in thought; the serene skies in the light of which these dramas disclose the ultimate har. nature had been so radiant and life so mony between spirit and form. absorbingly interesting to him. While it This searching inward experience was is highly improbable that the sonnets contemporaneous in Shakespeare's life at record in chronological order two deep and the beginning of the seventeenth century searching emotional experiences, the auto- with fierce dissensions between his personal biographic note in them is unmistakable; friends in his own profession, with growing it is impossible to avoid the conclusion bitterness of feeling and sharper antagothat they express, if they do not literally nism between the two great parties in report, a prolonged emotional experience England, and with a gradual but unmistakculminating in a crisis which shook the able overshadowing of the splendors of very bases of his nature; which brought him the “ spacious days of great Elizabeth,"
What is known as “The War of the creditable to both; but it is probable that Theaters ” was at its height between 1598 Shakespeare's sweetness of nature was and 1602; the chief combatants being the chief element in holding them on so Ben Jonson on one side, and Dekker and high a plane. By gifts, temperament, differMarston on the other; the weapons of ence of early opportunity, methods of work, warfare, satirical plays. Thirteen or four- conceptions of art, the two were for many teen dramas are enumerated as having years rivals for supremacy in the playtheir origin in the antagonism between the wright's field. The contrast between rival playwrights, the best known and them could hardly have been more most important of these plays being Jon- marked. Jonson was nine years the junior son's striking and characteristic comedy of Shakespeare, having been born in 1573. * Every Man in His Humour," and his His grandfather had been a clergyman, “Poetaster.” Dekker's “ Satiromastix” and he was the descendant of men of and Marston's “What You Will ” are gentle blood. He was city born and bred; chiefly interesting as forming part of the at Westminster he came under the teachrecord of this vociferous war, and “ The ing of a man of great learning, William Return from Parnassus” on account of Camden, who made him a student and one interesting but obscure reference to put the stamp of the scholar on his mind. Shakespeare which it contains : “ Few of He became a devout lover of the classics the University pen plaies well, they smell and a patient and thorough intellectual too much of that writer Ovid, and that worker. Poverty forced him to work with writer Metamorphosis, and talke too much his hands for a time, and when the War of Proserpina and Juppiter. Why, heres of the Theaters was at its height, his our fellow Shakespeare puts them all antagonists did not hesitate to remind downe, I and Ben Jonson too. O, that him that he had been a bricklayer in his Ben Jonson is a pestilent fellow, he brought stepfather's employ. From this unconup Horace giving the Poets a pill, but our genial occupation he found escape by fellow Shakespeare hath given him a purge taking service in the Netherlands, where that made him beray his credit.” These he proved his courage by at least one words were put into the mouth of the actor notable exploit. He returned to London, Kempe and spoken to the well-known actor and married at about the age at Burbage, and Mr. Ward suggests that which Shakespeare took the same importheir meaning may be put into plain tant step. He was a loyal and affectionspeech: “Our fellow, Shakespeare, aye, ate father, and a constant if not an adoring and Ben Jonson, too, puts down all the husband; he described his wife many university play-writers."
years after his marriage as “a shrew, yet The reference to a purge administered honest." by Shakespeare to Jonson has led to Like Shakespeare, he turned to the much speculation regarding Shakespeare's theater as a means of support; appeared part in this professional quarrel, and as an actor ; revised and, in part, rewrote " Troilus and Cressida” has sometimes older plays; collaborated with other playbeen placed among the plays which con- wrights. He lacked the faculty of adaptributed either light or heat to the discus- tation, the capacity for practical affairs, sion ; many of Shakespeare's characters and the personal charm which made have been identified by different critics Shakespeare successful as a man of busiwith the leading combatants and with ness; but, through persistent and intelliothers among his contemporaries; in gent work, he placed himself at the head no case, however, has any speculation of his profession. in this field secured a proper basis of He was of massive build ; his face proof. This very fact, taken in connec- strong rather than sensitive or expressive; tion with Shakespeare's long and cordial his mind vigorous, orderly, and logical, relations with Jonson, make it more than rather than creative, vital, and spontaneprobable that the dramatist stood outside ous; he was, by instinct, habit, and conthe arena, maintaining a friendly attitude viction, a scholar; saturated with the toward both parties to the strife.
classical spirit, absolutely convinced of The relations between Jonson and the fixed and final value of the classical Shakespeare are in the highest degree conceptions and methods in art; with a touch of the scholar's contempt for inac- notions and gentle expressions; wherein curacy, grace, ease, flexibility. He was a he flowed with that facility that somepoet by intention, as Shakespeare was a times it was necessary he should be poet by nature; a follower and expounder stopped ;" but all these adverse opinof the classic tradition, as Shakespeare ions, for which there was, from - Jonson's was essentially a romanticist; he achieved point of view, substantial ground, fall into with labor what Shakespeare seemed to true perspective and are evidences of disaccomplish by magic; he wrought out his criminating judgment rather than uncritiplots with the most scrupulous care for cal eulogy when the passage in which they unity and consistency, while Shakespeare stand is taken in its entirety, to say nothappeared to take whatever material came ing of the noble lines which appear in the to hand with easy-going indifference to First Folio. “I loved the man," wrote Jonthe niceties of craftsmanship. To a man son, “and do honor his memory, on this of Jonson's rugged and somewhat somber side idolatry, as much as any. He was temper, the success and love which Shake- indeed honest, and of an open and free speare evoked with such ease must have nature; had an excellent fancy ; brave seemed out of proportion to his desert; notions and gentle expressions. ... while Shakespeare's methods of work There was more in him to be praised than must have seemed to him fundamentally pardoned.” defective and superficial. It was a case That there were occasional outbursts of great dramatic intelligence matched of impatience with Shakespeare's ease, against great dramatic genius. When it spontaneity, and indifference to the taste is remembered that the two men were and standards of men who were primarily working in the same field and for the scholars and only secondarily poets, is same audience, the intensity of their rivalry, highly probable; it could hardly have and the provocations to jealousy and ill been otherwise. To men of plodding feeling which would naturally rise out of temper, of methodical habits of work, of it, become very clear.
trained faculties rather than of force and Shakespeare's generous nature, rein freedom of imagination, the facility of the forced by his breadth of vision, appar- man of genius often seems not quite normal ently kept him free all his life from any and sound; it is incomprehensible to them, touch of professional jealousy or animos- and therefore they regard it with a cerity. Jonson saw his rival pass him in the tain suspicion. It is greatly to Jonson's race for popular favor, and could hardly credit, when his temper and circumstances have been blind to the fact that Shake- are taken into account, that he judged speare distinctly distanced him in artistic Shakespeare so fairly and recognized his achievement. He was a conscientious genius so frankly. man, standing loyally for the ideals of his There is good reason to believe that art; he was a scholar, to whom accuracy Shakespeare kept aloof from the profesin every detail was a matter of artistic sional quarrels of his time among his felmorals; but as the immense vitality of low-craftsmen, and that he was a kind of the age seemed to penetrate to the very peacemaker among them; his kindliness source of his massive intellect and lift it went far to disarm the hostility of those above its laborious methods of work into who differed with him most widely on the region of art, and to turn its painstak- fundamental questions of art. It is an ing patience into lyrical ease and grace, open question, which has been discussed so Jonson's essential integrity of nature with ability on both sides, whether Jonson and largeness of mind forced upon him a had Shakespeare in mind in a striking recognition of his rival's greatness. It is passage in “ The Poetaster;" it is quite true he sometimes criticised Shakespeare; certain that he could hardly have described he commented sharply on certain passages Shakespeare's genius more aptly : in “Julius Cæsar," where Shakespeare His learning savours not the school-like glass was on his own ground; he declared that That most consists in echoing words and Shakespeare had “small Latine and less . terms, Greek :” that he " wanted art:" that he And soonest wins a man an empty name;
Nor any long or far-fetch'd circumstance ought to have “blotted a thousand” lines; Wrapp'd in the curious generalities of arts. that he “had an excellent fancy ; brave By a direct and analytic sum
Of all the worth and first effects of art. had a winning personality. In the proAnd for his poesy, 'tis so ramm'd with life,
logue to the fifth act of “Henry V.” That it shall gather strength of life, with being, And live hereafter more admired than now.
Shakespeare made an unmistakable allu
sion to Essex, and one which showed how Deeper matters than occasional refer- near Southampton's friend was to his ences to his lack of scholarship, and sharp heart: antagonisms among the men with whom were now the general of our gracious empress. he worked and among whom he lived, As in good time he may, from Ireland coming, pressed on Shakespeare's mind and heart Bringing rebellion broached on his sword, in the opening years of the seventeenth How many would the peaceful city quit century. The reign of Elizabeth was To welcome him! drawing to its close, under a sky full of Later, when the plot against the ruling ominous signs. The splendor of the party at the court was on the point of earlier years, which has given the reign a execution, the play of “Richard II.” was place among the most magnificent epochs put on the stage of the Globe Theater in the annals of royalty, had suffered, not and elsewhere for the purpose of awakenan eclipse, but a slow clouding of the sky, ing and giving direction to popular a visible fading of the day. The Queen indignation against the men about the had become an old and exacting woman, Queen. It is probable that the play procraving a love which she knew was not duced under these circumstances, and at given her, and an admiration which she the instigation of the organizers of the could no longer evoke. She still held ill-fated enterprise, was Shakespeare's her place, but she understood how eagerly well-known drama. This play never had many who surrounded her with service the approval of the Queen, who disliked and protestations of devotion were wait- its theme. There is no evidence beyond ing for the end and the chances of pro- this fact to connect Shakespeare with the motion in a new court. While they were plot which sent Essex to the block. It is praising her immortal youth they were highly improbable that so rash an enterwriting to James in Scotland that she was prise would have secured his support. aging rapidly and that the end was at It was not necessary that he should folhand. There were faces, too, that must low Essex's fortunes in order to love him. have been missed by the lonely sovereign Deficient in strength and ability both as she looked about her. When she as a soldier and a politician, Essex knew signed the death-warrant of Essex, she how to charm not only the crowd but those ended the career of one of the most brill- who stood near him. His face has that iant men of the age, and of one of her touch of distinction which is far more most devoted servants. Southampton was captivating than many more solid qualities. sentenced to death at the same time, but He had the gracious air of a benefactor; his sentence was commuted to imprison- there was an atmosphere of romance and ment for life. The people firmly believed adventure about him; he was a lover of in Essex's innocence of any designs upon the arts and the friend and patron of the Queen, and her haughty refusal to writers, who recognized and rewarded his listen to the pleas made in his behalf generosity in a flood of dedications full of turned their hearts against her. The melodious praise. The temper of the Earl of Southampton was not a man of age was personified in these two ardent, sound judgment or of cool temper ; but passionate, adventurous, brilliant personthere were in him a generosity of spirit, a alities far more truly than in many men loyalty to his friends, and a charm of of cooler temper and more calculating temper and manners which bound men to spirit. It is significant that the reprehis person and his fortunes.
sentative men of the Elizabethan period Through him there is every reason to rarely husbanded the fruits of their genius believe that Shakespeare was drawn into and perils; they lived too much in the close relations with Essex, who was, like imagination to secure those substantial Southampton, a man who lacked the gains which men of lesser ability but qualities of character necessary for suc- greater prudence laid up for themselves. cess in a period of conflicting movements Drake, Raleigh, Sidney, Essex, Spenser, and sharp antagonistic influences, but who were splendid spenders of energy, time,