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Copyright, 1900, Hamilton W. Mabie. All rights reserved.
Part XI11.—The Later Tragedies
HAKESPEARE was now in the speare. The evil of life was evidently S depths of the deep stirring of his pressing upon his imagination so heavily
spirit which has left its record in the that it had become a burden on his heart. tragedies. The darkest mood was on him, In “Hamlet” he had portrayed a rotten apparently, when“Hamlet” and the three society; in “Measure for Measure" he succeeding plays were written ; the mood depicted a State full of iniquity and a in which the sense of evil in the world group of men corrupted by the very air almost overpowered his belief in the essen- they breathed; in “Troilus and Cressida” tial soundness of life, and the mystery of the same vileness was personified in the evil pressed upon the imagination with most loathsome characters. such intensity that he was tempted to In the great Tragedies we breathe an take refuge in fundamental cynicism. It air which is charged with fate, and feel is in the plays of this period that Shake- ourselves involved in vast calamities which speare gives place to the deep-going irony we are powerless to control ; in the plays which pervaded the Greek drama, and which have been named we breathe an which at times obscures the essential atmosphere that is fetid and impure, freedom and shaping power of person- and human nature becomes unspeakably ality. In his darkest mood, however, mean and repulsive. This is, perhaps, the sanity and largeness of the poet's the effect of the terrible strain of the mind asserted themselves and kept the tragic mood on Shakespeare's spirit; and balance against the temptation to narrow these plays are to be accepted as expresthe vision by tingeing the world with the sions of a mood of depression verging color of a mood, or by substituting for upon despair. They are often classed clear, direct, dispassionate play of the with the Comedies, but they belong with mind on the facts of life the easy process the Tragedies, not only in temper, but in of reading universal history in the light time. of personal experience.
Even in this blackness of thick darkHow completely Shakespeare escaped ness the poet's sanity is never lost. In a danger which would have been fatal to a dull play by George Whetstone, pubhim is seen in the changes he wrought in lished in 1587, and called “ Promos and the story which forms the basis of “ Meas- Cassandra,” and based on an Italian ure for Measure.” This play, like “ All's novel by Cinthio, who also worked it into Well that Ends Well" and "Troilus and a tragedy, Shakespeare found the plot of Cressida,” is painful and repellent; it is “Measure for Measure ;” the story was tinged with an irony which has a corrosive told in prose by Whetstone four years later quality ; it is touched with a bitterness of in a collection of tales which he called feeling which seems foreign to Shake- “Heptameron of Çivil Discourses." In
JAMES THE FIRST
From an old print. the title of the play the earlier dram- kind of radiancy, and she finds her place atist affirmed that it showed in the first in the little company of adorable women part “the unsufferable abuse of a lewd in whom Shakespeare's creative imaginamagistrate; the virtuous behaviour of a tion realized and personified the eternal chaste lady ; the uncontrolled lewdness of feminine qualities. a favoured courtesan; and the undeserved “ Measure for Measure” was probably estimation of a pernicious parasite.” produced about 1603, and “ Troilus and Shakespeare's modifications of the plot Cressida” belongs, in its final form, to the are highly significant: in the older ver- same year. The problems presented by sions Isabella surrenders her virtue as the different versions are not more difficult the price of her brother's life; in than those presented by the play itself, “ Measure for Measure” her impregna- which has been described as “ a history ble purity gives the whole play a saving in which historical verisimilitude is openly sweetness. To Shakespeare's imagination set at nought, a comedy without genuine is due also the romantic episode of the laughter, a tragedy without pathos. moated grange and the pathetic figure of editors of the First Folio were so uncertain Mariana. In the murky atmosphere of about its essential character that they this painful drama Isabella's stainless and evaded the necessity of classifying it by incorruptible chastity invests purity with a placing it between the Histories and the HENRY, PRINCE OF WALES From an engraving by W. Linden, after the original by Mytens, in the collection of the Duke of Dorset. Tragedies. In temper, spirit, and proba- of unmistakable cynicism. This attitude bly in time, it belongs with the Tragedies, was not, however, entirely new to Shakewhere it is now generally printed. It is speare's auditors; the great Homeric story the only play in which Shakespeare drew had already been handled with a freedom upon the greatest stream of ancient story, which bordered on levity. Shakespeare the materials for which he found in shows little regard for the proprieties of many forms in the literature of his time. classical tradition ; this satirical attitude Chief among these was Chaucer's noble did not, however, blur his insight into rendering of the ancient romance in the the nature of the men whom he portrayed. “ Canterbury Tales,” to which may be The drama brings into clear light the added Chapman's “Homer," Lydgate's irony of human fate; but it is not a blind “ Troy Book," and probably Robert fate which the dramatist invokes as the Greene's version of the story which ap- shaping power in the drama; it is a fate peared in 1587.
set in motion by the fundamental qualities In this play Shakespeare was dealing or defects of the chief actors. The special with material which had generally been aspect of irony which the play presents is regarded as heroic and which was rich the confusion brought into private and in heroic qualities; his treatment is public affairs by lawless or fatuous love. however, essentially satirical, with touches Thersites goes to the heart of the matter when, with brutal directness, he character of that bloodless but vociferous combat; izes the struggle as a “ war for a placket.” but the drama must have had a deeper root. Helen,
Unsatisfactory and repellent as it is in A pearl,
some aspects, “Troilus and Cressida” Whose price hath launch'd above a thousand has very great interest as a document in ships,
Shakespeare's history as a thinker and involves Greece and Troy in measureless an artist. It is remarkable for its range disaster, while Cressida's cheap duplicity of style, reproducing as it does his makes Troilus the fool of fortune.
earlier manner side by side with his later This play, it will be remembered, has manner. It is notable also for its knowlbeen regarded by some critics as a con- edge of life, expressed in a great number tribution to the “war of the theaters,” of sententious and condensed phrases; for and as containing direct references, not its setting aside of the dramatic mask and only to the matters at issue, but to the direct statement of the truth which the characteristics and works of the chief com- dramatist means to convey. And it is batants. Mr. Fleay has made a thorough supremely interesting because in the perstudy of the play from this point of view, son of Ulysses, the real hero of the drama, and has presented his case with great acu- Shakespeare seems to present his own men and skillful arrangement of facts and view of life. The ripest wisdom of the inferences. It is difficult to find in the dramatist speaks through the lips of this play, in its present form, adequate basis for typical man of experience, whose insight the supposition that it was written as an has been corrected by the widest contact attack on Jonson, or that one of Shake- with affairs, whose long familiarity with speare's contemporaries is portrayed in the world has made him a master of its Thersites. Shakespeare may have touched diseases, and whose speech has the touch humorously on some of the extravagances of universality in its dispassionateness,