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Copyright, 1900, Hamilton W. Mabie. All rights reserved.
Part X.—Histories and Comedies The Historical Plays
fruit in “Colin Clout,” the “Epithala
mium," and the concluding books of the THE period of Shakespeare's ap- “Faerie Queene.” Sidney's noble “ Apol
prenticeship ended about 1596; ogie for Poesie,” which was in the key
the succeeding four or five years not only of the occupations and resources show him in full possession of his art and of his mind but of his life, appeared in his material, though the deeper phases of 1595, and a group of Bacon's earlier experience were still before him and the essays in 1597. Chapman's “Homer" full maturity of his genius was to be co- and Fairfax's "Tasso " enriched the Engincident with the searching of his spirit lish language with two masterpieces of in the period of the Tragedies. The last translation. Hooker and Hakluyt were half-decade of the sixteenth century were writing and publishing. Among the playgolden years in the life of the rising wrights are to be found the great names dramatist. He had made his place in of Dekker, Jonson, Middleton, Heywood, the world; he had learned his craft; he Marston, and Chapman. The men who had come to clear self-consciousness; the had possession of the stage when the poet intoxication of the possession of the poetic came up from Stratford-Marlowe, Peele, imagination and the gift of poetic ex- Greene, Lodge, Nash, Kyd, and Lylypression was upon him; he had immense had been succeeded by Shakespeare's zest in life, and life was at full-tide in his generation. That he should have detached veins and in the world about him. The himself from this great group and made Queen was at the height of her splendid a distinct impression on his contempocareer; the country had grown into clear raries is not the least among the many perception of its vital force and the pos- evidences of his extraordinary power. sible greatness of its fortunes; English English literature was in one of its noblest energy and courage were preparing the periods, and Shakespeare shared an imnew soil of the new world for the seeds of a pulse which, like a great tide, carried greater England at the ends of the earth; men of every kind of power to the furthest London was full of brilliant and powerful limits of their possible achievement. personalities, touched with the vital im- At no period of his life was Shakespeare pulse of the age, and alive in emotion, im- more keenly observant, more intellectually agination, and will. It was a time of great alert, more inventive, more joyous in spirit, works of art and of action ; in the two more spontaneous and poetic. He had worlds of thought and of affairs the tide solved the problem of his relation to his of creative energy was at the flood. time by discovering his gift, acquiring his
The genius of Spenser bore its ripest tools, and discerning his opportunity; he had ease of mind and openness of imagi- artistic coherence in the play is due to the nation. He gave himself up to the joy of inharmonious elements in it—the attempt life, and lived in its full tide with immense to combine the method of Marlowe and delight. He was not only in the world the spirit of Shakespeare. The framebut of it. Even in this eager and golden work of the play was conventional even in period so meditative a mind could not Shakespeare's time; the manner is so escape thɔse previsions of tragedy and lyrical that it is a tragic poem rather than fate which are never far off ; and sorrow a dramatic tragedy ; nevertheless, Richard did not pass by the household at Stratford, is drawn with a hand so firm, a realism so for in · August, 1596, according to the modern, that a play of very inferior conparish record, Hamnet, Shakespeare's struction becomes immensely eifective for only son, was buried. In this year“ King stage purposes, and has been almost conJohn” was written, and it has been sur- tinuously popular from its first represenmised that in the pathetic and beautiful tation. Shakespeare followed Holinshed character of Arthur, which is essentially and Marlowe in writing “Richard III.;" unhistorien the poet was portraying his but he put into the play that element of own son, and in the touching lament of ethical purpose which stamps all his work Constance giving voice to his own sorrow. and separates it in fundamental conception This loss, which must have been poignant from the work of Marlowe. was apparently the only shadow on these The parallelisms between “ Richard prosperous years when the poet was in II.” and Marlowe's “ Edward II.” are so his earliest prime.
obvious that it is impossible to escape the History and comedy absorbed the inference that Shakespeare was still under imagination and divided the creative the spell of the tremendous personality of energy of Shakespeare from 1596 to the author of “ Tamburlaine ;" but there 1600. Of the ten plays founded on are signs of liberation. There is a change English history, “ King John” serves as a of subject from the fortunes of the House prelude, with “ Richard II.,” the two parts of York to those of the House of Lancasof “ Henry IV.," “ Henry V.," the three ter; blank verse, to which Marlowe rigidly parts of “ Henry VI.,"and“ Richard III.,” adhered, gives place to frequent use of as a chronicle play on a great scale; while rhyme; and the atmosphere in which the “ Henry VIII.” may be taken as an epic action takes place is softened and clari. logue. The plays were not, however, fied. The weak king's eloquence often written in historical sequence, nor did betrays Shakespeare's inimitable touch, Shakespeare have any intention at the and the superb eulogy on England spoken start of making a connected treatment of by John of Gaunt is a perfect example of a stirring and dramatic period in English Shakespeare's use of the grand manner. history. He found the old plays dealing Still following Holinshed, and under the with Henry VI. ready to his hand, as has influence of Marlowe, the dramatist was been noted, and used them as material, swiftly working out his artistic emancipatouching “ Henry VI.” very lightly and tion. probably only in the way of adaptation To this period belongs “ King John," and revision, and the interpolation of a which was probably completed about 1595, few characteristic scenes and passages. and which was a recast of the older play “ Richard III.” came a little later in of “ The Troublesome Raigne of John, time, and is so evidently modeled after King of England,” published in 1591. Marlowe that its Shakespearean author- The conventional construction was not ship has been questioned by very com- greatly modified by Shakespeare, but the petent critics. It is full of echoes and play marks the transition from the chronreminiscences of Marlowe's manner; it icle play to the true drama; in which is tempestuous, turbulent, and violent; it incidents and characters are selected for is history dramatized rather than a true their dramatic significance, a dramatic historical drama; but the figure of Richard, motive introduced, dramatic movement which dominates the play and charges it traced, and a climax reached. The older with vitality, is as clearly realized and as playwrights, dealing with the events of a superbly drawn as any character in the whole reign, would have given the play an whole range of the plays. The lack of epical or narrative quality ; Shakespeare
THE HALL OF THE INNER TEMPLE
Where "Twelfth Night” was first played. selected, compressed, foreshortened, and in the older play ; he brought into clear grouped events and figures in such a light and consistency certain characters way as to secure connected action, the which were roughly sketched in the earlier development of character, and a final work; in the scene between Hubert and catastrophe which is impressive, if not Arthur he struck a new note of tenderness intrinsically dramatic. He instinctively and pathos; while in giving marked promomitted certain coarse scenes which were inence to the humor of Faulçonbridge he JOHN FLETCHER
From a picture in the possession of the Earl of Clarendon. opened the way for that blending of com- “Henry IV.," on the other hand, is susedy with tragedy and history which is tained throughout its wide range of interest one of the marks, not only of his matur- and action by the full force of Shakespeare's ity, but of his greatness. The play has genius. This inequality in the plays, the no hero, and is not free from the faults irregularities of growth which often present of the long line of dramas from which it themselves, and the occasional reversions descended and to which it belongs, but to the conventional construction which Shakespeare's creative energy is distinctly Shakespeare inherited from his predecesat work in it.
sors or to his own earlier manner, humanThe growth of the poet's mind and art ize the poet, bring his work well within the was rapid, and, in its large lines, is read- range of the literary evolution of his time, ily followed ; but it was a vital, not a logi- and, while leaving the miracle of his genius cal, development, and it was not, therefore, unexplained, make his career and his entirely orderly and harmonious. In his achievement intelligible and explicable. later work he sometimes returned to his The brilliant years between 1596 and earlier manner; at his maturity he more 1600 or 1601 were divided between histhan once took up existing material, and tory and comedy ; between the splendid was content to retouch without recon- show and pageant of society as illustrated structing it. The plays vary greatly in in the story of the English kings, and the quality and insight; it would not be easy variety, the humor, the inconsistency of to find in the work of any other poet of men, as these qualities are brought out in the first rank more marked inequalities. social life. The “ Taming of the Shrew,” Many of the sonnets touch the very limits and the “Merchant of Venice," in which of perfection; others are halting, artificial, the genius of the dramatist shines in full full of the conceits and forced imagery of splendor, probably antedated by a few the day. The early historical plays are months the writing of the two parts of often panoramic rather than dramatic; “Henry IV." and of “ Henry V.," but
From a picture in the possession of Colonel Harcourt. these plays are so nearly contemporane- rial, Shakespeare came to his own and made ous that their exact order of production is it his own by virtue of searching insight unimportant. The historical plays may into its ethical significance and complete be grouped together for convenience, keep- mastery of its artistic resources. Other ing in mind the fact that the dramatist plays show the poet in higher moods, but was apparently finding relief from dealing none discloses so completely the full range with great matters of state and great his- of his power;construction, characterization, torical personages by turning from time pathos, humor, wit, dramatic energy, and to time to comedy, and perhaps by writing the magical Shakespearean touch are found comedy simultaneously with history. in “Henry IV.” in free and harmonious
The first part of “Henry IV.” was unity of dramatic form. In no other play written not later than 1597 ; the second is there greater ease in dealing with part followed it after an interval of not apparently discordant elements ; nor is more than two years. The sources of the there elsewhere a firmer grasp of circumplay are to be found in Holinshed and an stances, events, and persons in dramatic earlier chronicle play of little merit but sequence and action. The play has a marked popularity, “ The Famous Victo- noble breadth of interest and action, a ries of Henry V." The play follows his- freedom of movement and vitality of chartory with deviations, the most important acterization, which give it the first place being the bold stroke of making the Prince among the historical dramas. and Hotspur of the same age; in the earlier The humor of Falstaff and the greed drama the hints of the rich humor, the and vulgarity of his ragged, disreputable inimitable comic action of Shakespeare's but immortal followers reinforce the work, are also found. But that which came dignity of the play, which is sustained into the hands of the dramatist as crude throughout at a great height. Nothing ore left it pure gold, stamped with inefface- which is human escapes the clear, piercable images. In the use of this raw mate- ing, kindly gaze of this young master of