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it is not now possible to discover. It is clear that the order of the plays was not determined by the dates of publication. Had Messrs. Heminge and Condell thought of ascertaining the strict chronological order of the plays, they would have furnished us with a clue to the solution of many difficulties, and contributed a most important chapter to the literary history of the poet. For this we have unbappily no sufficient evidence. No two critics can agree precisely on this perplexing question. The arrangement which commends itself to the historical research or critical taste of one inquirer is unceremoniously set aside by his successors as preposterous or untenable. It might have been supposed that as Shakspeare wrote for a livelihood, as soon as one drama was composed he would dispose of the copyright to some theatrical company, and the publication of the play or its entry at Stationers' Hall would have assisted the inquirer in determining the date of its composition, especially as the poet's productions were eagerly sought after. But even this evidence is not wholly reliable. Meres mentions the Sonnets in 1598, though they did not appear in print until 1609. Of The Two Gentlemen of Verona,' also alluded to by Meres, no copy is known to exist prior to that of the folio in 1623. The earliest editions of
The Midsummer Night's Dream'and The Merchant of Venice' are of 1600.* But although the editors of the folio did not trouble themselves with adopting any strict chronological arrangement, it may be asserted as a general truth that the Comedies belong to the earlier period of Shakspeare's life, the Histories to his maturer years, and the Tragedies, especially the Roman plays, to the succeeding epoch. In other words, whilst · Hamlet' (as we now have it), · Lear,'' Macbeth,''Othello,' Timon of Athens,' and the Roman plays, belong to the reign of James I., the Histories and most of the Comedies, with the exception of “The Tempest,' were composed in the reign of Elizabeth.t Born and disciplined in the vigorous, passionate, but practical age of the Tudors, the genius of the poet took a wider range and sublimer flight when the accession of the Stuarts brought the nation into more familiar contact with the great problems of nature and the inscrutable destiny of man. Until the close of the sixteenth century he had failed to put forth all his strength; it was perhaps scarcely known to himself. Flashing with wit and liveliness, inventive, prolific, and versatile, the quaint, the dry, the humorous, the exceptional, were irresistibly attractive to a temperament as yet
As they are entered the same year at Stationers' Hall it is unlikely that they should have been printed before. 'Titus Andronicus' is Roman only in name, the treatment and colouring are
unsteeped in affliction, that “ doffed the world aside and let it pass. For the world had upon the whole used the poet kindly -laughed at the sallies of his wit, lent itself with childlike docility to the practical jokes and endless humour of Falstaff, or shed happy and complacent tears over the sorrows of Romeo and his Juliet. Rarely, with the exception of Richard II.,' had the genius of Shakspeare travelled into the regions of the sublime and mysterious. In no instance, until the appearance of “Hamlet' in 1603, had he attempted to show how closely this world of sight merges on the confines of the spiritual, or how there is more than the measured philosophy of mere motives to determine the fate and actions of mankind. Gradually the veil was uplifted; the narrow sphere of the visible-sufficing at one time for all the poet's sympathies; at one time an inexhaustible fund for his keen perception of human passions and eccentricities—was gradually enlarged; and nature presented itself to his eyes in the fulness of its strength and the extremity of its weakness. Sadder and more solemn grows the poet's vision; the humorous and the comical seldom find a place in his maturer productions; but instead of them the omnipresence, the omnipotence (as it were) of evil. Latent infirmity within, dogged, encouraged, and lured to its destruction by invisible wickedness without; momentary weakness trammelling up in its never-ending train gigantic consequences; Heaven holding out no relief, no sign, to oppressed innocence; virtue dragged from its height; valour in Macbeth stooping to crime; honour and fidelity in Othello ignoble victims to bat-like suspicion; generosity betrayed in Timon to selfishness; grand resolutions the fool of accident in Hamlet :—these are the themes of his maturer powers. If the poet still deals with the exceptional and uncommon-and that in the mind of Shakspeare is of the essence of tragedy—it is no longer the exceptional or eccentric in humours, manners, diction, taste, but of intellect, imagination, and passion. The subtlest forms of insanity striking its thin and poisonous fibres into the strongest reason, sapping by unseen and unconscious degrees the noblest intellectual faculties, warping the purest affections to its own masterless bias; the broad clear daylight of the mind, now overcast, now yielding to darkness, until it succumbs to total eclipse; the light alternating with the shade ; the thin edge separating sanity from insanity; the various shapes and tricks of moodiness, from the dreaminess of unnatural calm, to the frantic rage of Lear and his heartbroken sorrow: these are the scenes on which Shakspeare dwells in the latter epoch of his life, and has described with inimitable power, insight, and fidelity. Morning and night meet, as in Nature, in the poet's writings
-the comic and the tragic. In the full flush and luxuriance of his powers he rises upon us bright, lively, and jocund as the dawn; we know not where he will lead us in the abundance of his poetical caprice, what stores of mirth and wanton wiles, what brilliant and ever-changing hues will sparkle, dazzle, and allure us in his ambrosial course, But that bright morningunlike the morning of many of the poet's contemporaries--goes down in a solemn and glorious sunset, canopied with clouds of gold and purple.
For the plots of his comedies Shakspeare was chiefly indebted to French and Italian novelists; for his histories to Hall and Hollinshed; and for his classical plays to the Lives of Plutarch,'translated by North, and to such versions of the classical authors as had appeared in the earlier part of the sixteenth century. Old English authors, plays, chronicles, and ballads furnished him with the groundwork of his tragedies ; and this readiness of the poet to lean on the invention of others, however feeble and meagre, rather than rely on his own superior resources for the framework of his plays, has often been quoted as an instance of his carelessness, or at best of his unwillingness to venture upon untrodden ground. He preferred to use the wonderful superstructure of his genius on incidents already familiar to his audience, trusting to his power of investing them with a new character, a more profound or more lively significance, than, like many of his contemporaries, owe his popularity to the horror, the extravagance, the involution, or the novelty of his story. But may not the true solution of this hankering after old and established facts and traditions be found in Shakspeare's intense realism? He had a profound reverencenot Aristotle more so-for everything that carried with it the stamp of popular recognition. His strongest convictions, the highest dictates of his taste and feelings, are not always proof against this settled purpose of his soul. He clung to it with an intense earnestness, as if to abandon it was to commit himself to a sea of doubt and perplexity—a wandering maze without a footing. To Bacon it was enough that any theory, any opinion, any fact should be generally accepted to be unceremoniously rejected. A mixture of a lie doth ever add pleasure’; and if truth itself were to become popular, it must be plentifully alloyed with falsehood.* The perfect self-confidence of Bacon, who at sixteen passed judgment on Aristotle, as barren and unfruitful, might set him above the necessity of any such fixed points. But then Bacon's vision was limited; his mind and attention, earthfixed and bound up in the investigation of material laws, were in no danger of wandering and being lost in the regions of infinite space, as the eye glanced 'from Heaven to earth, from earth to Heaven.' His ethical creed might have been comprised in the words, “Man delights not me, nor woman either.' But Shakspeare, with stronger, wider, kindlier sympathies, as untram melled by systems as Bacon, working out for himself, in solitude and unassisted, as true a method of inquiry, as profound an observer as Bacon, as convinced as he of a divine order underlying and overlapping the seeming confusions of this world, dreaded quite as much as Bacon could do the danger of mistaking for realities the dreams of his own phantasy. So, wiser than Lord Bacon, and more truly philosophical, instead of despising popular belief, instead of ignoring it, as if it had no foundation except in falsehood, Shakspeare accepted it, probed the foundation on which it rested, brought into clearer light the half or whole truths enveloped in it, and gave form and coherent meaning to the confused and incoherent creeds of mankind.
* Or, as Bacon pithily expresses it: •Auctoritas pro veritate, non veritas pro auctoritate sit' (p. 105).
Perhaps also to one who carved out for himself a wholly untrodden path like Shakspeare, who had little of the countenance of the learned or the confidence of rules and systems to support him, a fixed faith somewhere was the more indispensable. He was living in a sceptical age, when the freshness of faith and that confidence in the rising glories of Protestantism, which had inspired the poetry of Spenser, were fast dying out. Many had relapsed into Romanism, many had fallen into atheism; the narrow creed of Puritanism could not accommodate itself to the larger sympathies and growing intelligence of the age. It viewed with the utmost consternation and alarm divines like Hooker securely trespassing beyond the pale of its doctrinal conventionalism, and philosophers like Bacon poring over the book of God's works,' as a derogation to the book of God's word.' Sympathizing with Romanism and Protestantism so far as they were human, Shakspeare could not be wholly satisfied with either. There was something deeper than either, perhaps common to both. And whilst the creeds of neither are distinctly enunciated in his writings, whilst neither can claim him as an especial advocate, both recognize in him a sincere and profound religious element, distinct, positive, permeant through his writings; not thrust forward to catch applause or gild a popular sentiment, but a pure, dry vestal light, equally free from fanaticism on one side and from infidelity on the other.
Unfixed, unsettled in their faith, the men of the poet's days looked uneasily at the progress of inductive philosophy; at its bold in
novations, its new tests, its contempt for antiquity, its hatred of Aristotle. How could the faith hold its ground against the invasion of science? How could men immersed in the contemplation of second causes recognize their sole dependence upon Him who is the first cause ? Philosophy might assure them that the province of revelation and the province of science were distinctthat philosophy was as remote from divinity as the terrestrial is from the celestial globe. But the divine felt, and felt truly, that it was not a question of distinct and incommensurate jurisdiction; not whether the field of science might be occupied with earnest and hardy inquirers, and the field of divinity be cultivated in the authorized mode ; but how far was it likely or possible, that men who had been rigidly trained to one method of investigation, who deferred to one tribunal, from which they admitted no appeal in matters of science and material utility, could or would divest themselves of these ingrained habits, when not science but faith was concerned.* So then, as now, the question was, How shall religion stand before the new philosophy ? How shall reason be reconciled with revelation ? For this neither divine nor philosopher could discover the true solution. What help may be found for it in Shakspeare, we will not undertake to say. But if the clearest and the largest transcript of human experience can contribute to that solution, that help is to be found in the dramatist. The data with which he has supplied us are as sound, as certain, as unerring a basis for axioms and deductions, as those of the inductive philosophy; like them, are founded not on notions, but observation, and have been gathered from as wide a circle of experience. We argue, and we justly argue, upon the characters in a play of Shakspeare, or any sentiment propounded by them, or their exhibition of passions and feelings, not as the poet's creations, but as historic realities. In reading or studying his dramas, we feel that we are surrounded not by phantoms, but by flesh and blood closely akin to ourselves; and no hard deduction of logic, no persuasion of any kind, can make us feel or think otherwise. They may be Romans, or Celts, or Italians, or Jews, living in the dark backward and abyss of time which we cannot realize, compacted of influences long since extinguished ; yet whatever they are they are men, to us more real than those who pass before our eyes, or even tell us their own histories. For if our most intimate friends, throwing away all self-restraint and self-respect, were willing to turn themselves inside out for our inspection, neither would they be able to do it nor we to read
* Bacon anticipated the evil ; see pref. to “Organon ' p. xcvi.; anticipated, but no otherwise provided against it, except by pointing out the danger, Vol. 131.- No. 261.