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was esteemed no better than a dreamer-a new but ignoble Phäethon driving the earth about the sun.*
Yet these men's labours were not without their use. Steeped in classical literature, deriving their rules from classical models, guiding their judgment exclusively, though with small discrimination, by classical authority, they inexorably determined the form and style of dramatic art. They developed the poetical capabilities of the English language. They refined it to those higher purposes of poetical literature for which, even at their time, and still more emphatically before their time, it was considered wholly unsuitable. The world was still divided between the learned and the laymen. Latin associated with the religious sympathies and scholastic supremacy of the middle ages had not yet resigned its special dignity as the only organ of inspiration. It had entered on a new and more splendid career by the revival of letters and the labours of the revivalists. The English tongue, rough, confused, unmetrical—the tongue of business and of the vulgar—was, in the lips of the educated, a condescension to vulgar ignorance and infirmity;—a pharisaic uncleanness, which the scholar and the gentleman must contract in his associations with the unlearned, in his pity for their blindness, but of which he washed himself up to the very elbows in his communion with his fellows.f It may be easy to smile at these things now; but, to those who think deeply on the subject, it must seem wonderful how a language constantly associated with ignoble uses, intensely businesslike and prosaic, despised by men of taste and learning, could pass, and that so rapidly, into the radiant sphere of poetry. What is the task of a great artist, embodying his conceptions with a piece of black charcoal and a stick, compared with that of the poet who has to clothe his most subtle thoughts, his nicest, his most incisive and accurate perceptions, in words never trained by usage to such purposes, never adequate to his needs, falsified in their true significance by carelessness and stupidity, always spilling over or falling short in the due adjustment of their popular acceptation to their etymological exactness ?
These men, then, did that for Shakspeare which it is very possible the poet, great as he was, could not have done so well for himself. They had familiarised men's minds with the laws of the drama, in the concrete; they had accustomed the ears of * "Those new carmen which drive the earth about.'-Bacon.
+ Mr. Collier has printed a letter in which the authorities of the University of Cambridge request they may be excused from complying with the royal request to act a play in English. They are contented to represent a Latin play, but an English one they consider derogatory, and the students are highly offended at the notion.
men to a stately blank verse, essentially and exclusively English in its character-indelibly associated with all our noblest poetry
-and yet evidently suggested by an intense study of its classical forerunner.* Language, in their hands, was intensified and elevated, however deficient it might be in suppleness and versatility-qualities at that time less required. For stateliness and dignity, combined with strength and fervour, passages may be extracted from our elder dramatists which are not surpassed by any of their successors, Shakspeare and Milton excepted ;-and how much the latter was indebted for many of his excellences to a careful study of these early writers, no one can doubt who has taken the trouble to study the subject. If these excellences are marred by startling incongruities; if in their best passages they run into extravagance, or,
Ten thousand fathoms deep'that was incidental to their task. It was no more than, in their case, might have been anticipated. As they could not all at once pull up their audience to their own altitude, they descended to their audience. The mere Latinists, as they were called, proud of their scholarship and defiant of all departure from classical types, died in their theory, and left no mark behind them ;but these men, mixing with the world, too often steeped in its excesses, and sounding the lowest depths of its misery, had more sympathy with their fellow-men and their ways. Their own experience, as they found, was of more worth to them as dramatists than their learning, if they wished for popularity. So with their classical tastes and predilections they mixed up, often incongruously enough, the homely and coarse scenes of their own daily experience, in the homeliest and least idealised forms.
From 1585, when Shakspeare is supposed to have taken up his residence in London, to 1598, we have very few data to determine the poet's circumstances, conduct, or specific employments. That he was assiduous as an actor and a successful dra
* This is evidently on what poor Greene prided himself—and justly so-in his dying hours. Thus in the well-known passage referring to Shakspeare: There is an upstart crow beautified with our feathers, that with his tiger's heart wrapt in a player's hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you.' Beautified with our feathers means, as he expresses it, to write blank verse, and imitate the rules of dramatic composition, to which Greene and his friends had contributed so much popularity. That a country lad like Shakspeare, not of the craft, without fame, friends, or a University education, should bombast out a blank verse' as well as the most experienced writers of the age, was a fact sufficient to alarm the jealousy of Greene and of his contemporaries.
Shaksuragedy andi Verona, Won" his.
matist from the very first is clear from the concurrent testimony of the times ; scanty as it is. Already in 1598, a writer named Francis Meres, Master of Arts of both Universities,' in a 'Discourse of English Poets,'* mentions Shakspeare in the following terms: Shakspeare, among the English, is the most excellent in both kinds (tragedy and comedy) for the stage. For comedy, witness his “Gentlemen of Verona,” his “Errors," his “Love's Labour's Lost," his “Love's Labour's Won," his “ Midsummer's Night's Dream," and his “ Merchant of Venice.” For tragedy, his “Richard II.," “ Richard III.,” “Henry IV.,” “King John," 66 Titus Andronicus," and his “Romeo and Juliet.”
From the language of Meres it would be naturally inferred that he did not propose to give a complete list of Shakspeare's writings in 1598, but of those only which bore out his assertion that he was the most excellent' in tragedy as well as in comedy. Thus, within twelve or thirteen years after Shakspeare's arrival in London, Meres could point to twelve plays of Shakspeare so generally well known and universally applauded that, in spite of the popularity of Greene, Peele, and Marlowe, or even Ben Jonson, † Meres made no scruple to claim for Shakspeare the palm as a dramatist above all his contemporaries. Even admitting that Meres' list is complete, this would give a year for a play; and for such plays as “Richard II.,' •King John, · Henry IV.,' the Midsummer's Night's Dream,' and “Romeo and Juliet.'
But this is not all; for, in 1593, Shakspeare had given to the world his two poems of Venus and Adonis,' and 'Lucrece.' To the same period must be ascribed the three parts of Henry VI.,'*. and at least so many of the Sonnets—if they were written, as some critics imagine, at different intervals—as to justify Meres's encomium of them, which we make no scruple of repeating here, were it only to disusabe some of our readers of the notion that Shakspeare's contemporaries were insensible to his greatness. “As the soul of Euphorbus' (says Meres) was thought to live in Pythagoras, so the sweet, witty soul of Ovid lives in
* · Palladis Tamia,' printed at London in 1598. The testimony of Meres is the more valuable because from his reference to Shakspeare's 'Sugred Sonnets among his private friends,' which were not printed until long after, Meres must have been either one of those private friends' or well acquainted with them.
+ Jonson's best comedy, Every Man in His Humour,' appeared, two years before Meres' book, in 1596, the year in which Shakspeare lost his only son.
On the authority of Greene, in his 'Groatsworth of Wit,' published in 1592, in which the line
O tiger's heart wrapped in a woman's hide !' (3 Hen. VI. i. 4) is travestied into tiger's heart wrapped in a player's hide.' It is also supposed that the first part of Henry VI.' is alluded to by Nash in his · Piers Penniless,' written the same year.
inellifluous and honey-tongued Shakspeare. Witness his “Venus and Adonis,” his “ Lucrece,” his Sugred Sonnets among his private friends.
The rapidity with which Shakspeare poured forth his wonderful conceptions, the meteor-like fight with which he emerged from the throng of his contemporaries, the endless profusion of his genius, the most consummate judgment and knowledge of his art and its requirements, combined with a luxuriant energy and a teeming imagination that seemed utterly inexhaustible, might well have provoked the wonder and envy of his less favoured rivals. Their most careless and irregular productions, thrown off under the pressure of necessity or on the impulse of passion, could not keep pace with the creations of Shakspeare, in whom the deliberate energy, the studiousness, the conscious reticence of the artist are as conspicuous as the fertility of his imagination and the impetuosity of his genius. In beauty,' says Lord Bacon, that of favor is more than that of color: and that of decent (becoming) and gracious motion, more than that of favor.' In the plays of the poet's contemporaries, it is the beauty of colour, of graceful and harmonious language; their stateliness never moves; the action never advances, or by fits and by intervals, like human mechanism. In Shakspeare, on the other hand, the action, like Nature, is ever advancing, never still; rapid, but imperceptible; like the summer grass—unseen, but crescent in its faculty. Even in the feeblest of his plays—if such a term can be applied to them—this quality is remarkable. He gets over the ground with astonishing rapidity—an excellence lost to us, who read Shakspeare in the closet and never see him on the stage. He never loiters or lingers in some cool nook, or wastes his time over subordinate details, or turns out of the current to strand in muddy or shallow water, enamoured of his own wit or his own sublimity. But as he rushes straight on in a fuller, more rapid, and ever increasing volume, sparkling and dashing like a river, all sorts of colours, of sights and sounds, grave and gay, pathetic and joyous, glittering and transparent, dance along the surface; now gleaming fathoms deep to the bottom, now startling and now amusing, now freezing us with emotions of uncontrollable delight, now calling up tears from some sealed and unbroken deep within us.
That the judgment of his contemporaries, though often faulty, was not always at fault is clear from the notices illustrative of Shakspeare in the scattered literature of his times. It is certain that the greatness of his genius as a dramatist was recognised from the first. Greene would scarcely have warned his associates
Vol. 131.–No. 261.
production shownuniversality of by this
of their approaching eclipse by this new Johannes Factotum," alluding to the universality of the poet's genius, had Shakspeare's audience shown themselves indifferent to these his earliest productions, or slow in recognising their sterling merits. Nor would Meres have ventured to speak of Shakspeare in such high terms of admiration had not popular estimation guided and sanctioned his judgment. We have, besides, the admission of Chettle, a contemporary playwright, the friend of Greene, and editor of his “Groatsworth of Wit.' In defending himself from his supposed share in Greene's malevolent insinuations, which had given just offence to Shakspeare, Marlowe, and others, Chettle says : * • With neither of them that take offence was I acquainted; and with one of them (Marlowe) I care not if I never be. The other (Shakspeare) whom at that time I did not so much spare as since I wish I had ;—that I did not I am as sorry as if the original fault had been my fault, because myself have seen his demeanour no less civil, than he excellent in the quality he professes. Besides, divers of worship have reported his uprightness of dealing, which argues his honesty, and his facetious grace in writing that approves his art.' †
These testimonies alike to his genius and the spotless integrity of the poet's conduct, so different from that of most conteinporary dramatists, are unimpeachable. The poet's worldly prosperity kept pace with his reputation. The occupation of an actor alone was a profitable one in those days, and with ordinary prudence was sure to lead, not only to competence, but to wealth. But with his occupation as an actor Shakspeare combined that of a successful and prolific dramatist; and the two together soon raised him from the condition of a needy adventurer in 1585 to that of a well-to-do possessor of lands and
* Kind Hearts' Dream,' published in 1592. + Euphuism all over.
Thus, in Greene's Never Too Late,' in the interview between the player and Roberto (i.e. Greene), on the latter asking how the player proposed to mend Roberto's fortune-Why, easily,' quoth he, 'and greatly to your benefit; for men of my profession get by scholars their whole living.' What is your profession ?' said Roberto. "Truly, sir,' said he, .I am a player.' 'A player!' quoth Roberto, • I took you rather for a gentleman of great living; for if by outward habit men should be answered (judged), I tell you, you would be taken for a substantial man.' * So am I, where I dwell,' quoth the player, “reported; able at my proper cost to build a windmill.' He then proceeds to say that at his outset in life he was fain to carry his playing fardel,' that is, his bundle of stage properties, “a foot back;' but now his show of playing apparel' would sell for more than 2002. In the end he offers to engage Greene to write plays for him: 'for which you shall be well paid, if you will take the pains.' We know from the sequel that though Greene was extravagant, and never to be trusted if paid beforehand, seldom he wanted, his labours were so well esteemed. See the quotation in Dyce's preface to * Works of Greene,' p. 20, ed. 1861.