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these powers are indispensable to the production of high tragedy: a position affirmed as long ago as the days of Plato; sound in the reason of the thing; and, above all, made good in the instance of Shakespeare; who was
Shakespeare, mainly because he had all the powers of the human mind in harmonious order and action, and used them all, explicitly or implicitly, in every play he wrote.
Shakespeare had one or two other senior contemporaries of whom I must say a few words, though it is not likely that they contributed much, if any thing, towards preparing him. John Lily, born in 1554, and Master of Arts in 1576, has considerable wit, some poetry; withal a certain crisp, clever, conceited mannerism of style, which caused him to be spoken of as “ eloquent and witty”; but nothing that can be properly termed dramatic talent. His persons all speak in precisely the same vein, being indeed but so many empty figures or puppets, reflecting or propagating the motions of the author himself. His dramatic pieces, of which we have nine, seven in prose, one in rhyme, and one in blank-verse, seem to have been designed for Court entertainments, but were used more or less on the public stage, chiefly by the juvenile companies. They are all replete with that laboured affectation of fine writing which was distinguished at the time as Euphuism. One of his main peculiarities stands in using, for images and illustrations, certain imaginary products of a sort of artificial nature, which he got up especially for that purpose; as if he could invent better materials for poetic imagery than ancient Nature had furnished! Still, it is not unlikely that we owe to him somewhat of the polish and flexibility of the Shakespearian dramatic diction: that he could have helped the Poet in any thing beyond mere diction it were absurd to suppose.
I have already spoken of Thomas Lodge as joint author with Greene of a good-for-nothing play. We have one other play by him, entitled The Wounds of Civil War,
and having for its subject “the true tragedies of Marius and Sylla," written before 1590, but not printed till 1594. It is in blank-verse; which however differs from the niost regular rhyming ten-syllable verse in nothing but the lack of consonous endings. - Lodge is chiefly memorable in that one of his prose pieces was drawn upon for Shakespeare's As You Like It.
We have now reached the time when Shakespeare's hand had learnt its cunning, so far at least as any previous examples could teach it. Perhaps I ought to add, as showing the prodigious rush of life and thought towards the drama in that age, that, besides the authors I have mentioned, Henslowe's Diary supplies the names of thirty other dramatists, most of whom have propagated some part of their workmanship down to our time. In the same document, during the twelve years beginning in February, 1591, we have the titles recorded of no less than two hundred and seventy pieces, either as original compositions, or as revivals of older plays. As all these entries have reference only to Henslowe's management; and as, during that period, except for some short intervals, he was concerned with the affairs of but a single company; we may
thence conceive how vastly fertile the age was in dramatic production.
After all, it is hardly possible for us to understand how important a part dramatic exhibitions played in the life of “merry England in the olden time.” From a very early period, the interest in them was deep, general, and constant; it grew with the growth of civilization; it became complicated with all the mental, moral, and social habitudes of the people; and, in fact, whatever “seed-points of light" got planted in the popular mind had no way but to organize themselves into that shape. Those old plays, such as they were, with their rude, bold attempts to combine religion and mirth, instruction and sport, may almost be described as having been the nerves upon which the whole mental
character of the nation formed itself. The spirit which began so early to work in them kept on asserting itself more and more strongly from age to age, till the Drama became emphatically a popular passion; as indeed must always be the case before any thing deserving the name of a National Drama can possibly arise. And it is quite surprising how long this spirit, so universal and so intense, was restrained from putting on so much of institutional form and expression as is implied in having buildings erected or adapted for its special use and service. For we have thus far heard of nothing in the character of temples provided for the liturgies of the Dramatic Art.
The spirit in question, however, did at last reach such a measure of strength, that it could no longer be restrained from issuing in a provision of that sort. The play-house known as the Blackfriars was established in 1576, and was owned and run by the company to which Shakespeare afterwards belonged. Two others, called The Theatre and The Curtain, were probably started about the same time, as we find them in operation in 1577. Before the end of the century, the city and suburbs of London had at least eight more in full blast. And there were, besides, ever so many strolling companies of players carrying the mysteries of their craft into nearly all parts of the kingdom. So that the Drama may well be judged to have been, in the Poet's time, decidedly a great institution. In fact, it was a sort of fourth estate of the realm ; nearly as much so, indeed, as the Newspaper Press is in our time. Practically, the Government was vested in King, Lords, Commons, and Dramatists, including in the latter both writers and actors; the Poet thus having far more reason than now exists for making Hamlet say to the old statesman, “ After you death you were better have a bad epitaph, than their ill report while you live.”
The foregoing review, brief and inadequate as it is, may answer the purpose of imparting some just notion of the
growth and progress of the English Drama till it reached the eve of its maturity. The allegorical drama had great influence, no doubt, in determining the scope and quality of the proper drama of comedy and tragedy ; since, by its long discipline of the popular mind in abstract ideas, or in the generalized forms of ethical thought, it did much towards forming that public taste which required and prompted the drama to rise above a mere geography of facts into the empyrean of truth; and under the instructions of which Shakespeare learned to make his persons embodiments of general nature as well as of individual character. For the excellences of the Shakespearian Drama were probably owing as much to the mental
preparation of the time as to the powers of the individual man. He was in demand before he came; and it was that preexisting demand that taught and enabled him to do what he did. If it was the strength of his genius that lifted him to the top of the heap, it was also the greatness of the heap that enabled him to reach and maintain that elevation. For it is a great mistake to regard Shakespeare as standing alone, and working only in the powers of his individual mind. In fact, there never was any growth of literature or art that stood upon a wider basis of collective experience, or that drew its form and substance from a larger or more varied stock of historical preparation.*
* Since the passage in the text was written, I have met with some welldrawn remarks of a like drift in Froude's History of England, Chapter I.: “The chroniclers have given us many accounts of the masques and plays which were acted in the Court, or in the castles of the noblemen. Such pageants were but the most splendid expression of a taste which was national and universal. As in ancient Greece, generations before the rise of the great dramas of Athens, itinerant companies wandered from village to village, carrying their stage furniture in their little carts, and acted in their booths and tents the grand stories of the mythology; so in England the mysteryplayers haunted the wakes and fairs, and in barns or taverns, tap-rooms, or in the farm-house kitchen, played at saints and angels, and transacted on their petty stage the entire drama of the Christian Faith. We allow ourselves to think of Shakespeare or of Raphael or of Phidias as having accomplished their work by the power of their own individual genius; but greatness like
Dryden, in one of his occasional pieces, represents the Poet's ghost as saying,
Untaught, unpractis'd, in a barbarous age,
I found not, but created first, the stage”; and such has been the common belief. But the saying is far from true; and Shakespeare's ghost must have sipped large draughts of Lethe, to be capable of speaking thus. For, though the least that he did is worth more than all that was done before him, and though his poorest performances surpass the best of his models; it is nevertheless certain that his task was but to continue and perfect what was already begun. Not only were the three forms of comedy, history, and tragedy in use on the English stage, but the elements of these were to some extent blended in the freedom and variety of the Gothic Drama. The usage also of dramatic blank-verse stood up inviting his adoption ; though no one before or since has come near him in the mastery of its capabilities ; his genius being an inexhaustible spring of both mental and verbal modulation. Nor can all this be justly regarded as any alleviation of his task, or any abatement of his fame. For, to work thus with materials and upon models already prepared, without being drawn down to their level and subdued to their quality, requires, if possible, a higher order and exercise of
theirs is never more than the highest degree of an excellence which prevails widely round it, and forms the environment in which it grows. No single mind in single contact with the facts of nature could have created out of itself a Pallas, a Madonna, or a Lear: such vast conceptions are the growth of ages, the creations of a nation's spirit; and artist and poet, filled full with the power of that spirit, have but given them form, and nothing more than form. Nor would the form itself have been attainable by any isolated talent. No genius can dispense with experience; the aberrations of power, unguided or ill-guided, are ever in proportion to its intensity, and life is not long enough to recover from inevitable mistakes. Noble conceptions already existing, and a noble school of execution, which will launch mind and hand at once upon their true courses, are indispensable to transcendent excellence; and Shakespeare's plays were as much the offspring of the long generations who had pioneered his road for him as the discoveries of Newton were the offspring of those of Copernicus."