Minor punctuation errors have been corrected without notice. Obvious printer errors have been corrected, and are listed at the end.
For the chapter heading, "The Second Part of King Henry IV", the Table of Contents lists it as "King Henry IV, Part II"; this was not changed. In addition other inconsistencies are as in the original. The author's spelling has been maintained.
HOME UNIVERSITY LIBRARY OF MODERN KNOWLEDGE
BY JOHN MASEFIELD
WILLIAMS & NORGATE
HENRY HOLT & Co., NEW YORK CANADA: WM. BRIGGS, TORONTO INDIA: R. & T. WASHBOURNE, LTD.
HERBERT FISHER, M.A., F.B.A.
PROF. GILBERT MURRAY, D.LITT., LL.D., F.B.A.
PROF. J. ARTHUR THOMSON, M.A.
PROF. WILLIAM T. BREWSTER, M.A. (Columbia University, U.S.A.)
HENRY HOLT AND COMPANY
AUTHOR OF "THE TRAGEDY OF POMPEY THE GREAT," "MULTITUDE AND SOLITUDE," "LOST ENDEAVOUR," "CAPTAIN MARGARET," "THE TRAGEDY OF NAN," ETC.
NEW AND REVISED EDITION
WILLIAMS AND NORGATE
I THE LIFE OF SHAKESPEARE 9
II THE ELIZABETHAN THEATRES 18
III THE PLAYS 23
Love's Labour's Lost 24
The Two Gentlemen of Verona 34
The Comedy of Errors 43
Titus Andronicus 49
King Henry VI, Part I 51
" " " " II 54
" " " " III 60
A Midsummer Night's Dream 63
Romeo and Juliet 67
King John 75
King Richard II 86
King Richard III 93
The Merchant of Venice 102
The Taming of the Shrew 105
King Henry IV, Part I 109
" " " " II 114
King Henry V 120
The Merry Wives of Windsor 123
As You Like It 128
Much Ado About Nothing 133
Twelfth Night 138
All's Well that Ends Well 144
Julius Caesar 149
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark 157
Troilus and Cressida 168
Measure for Measure 174
Othello, the Moor of Venice 180
King Lear 186
Antony and Cleopatra 202
Timon of Athens 214
Pericles, Prince of Tyre 218
The Winter's Tale 226
The Tempest 231
King Henry VIII 235
WORK ATTRIBUTED TO SHAKESPEARE 238
Venus and Adonis 241
The Rape of Lucrece 242
The Passionate Pilgrim 244
The Sonnets 244
The Phoenix and the Turtle 249
AUTHOR'S NOTE 250
THE LIFE OF SHAKESPEARE
Stratford-on-Avon is cleaner, better paved, and perhaps more populous than it was in Shakespeare's time. Several streets of mean red-brick houses have been built during the last half century. Hotels, tea rooms, refreshment rooms, and the shops where the tripper may buy things to remind him that he has been where greatness lived, give the place an air at once prosperous and parasitic. The town contains a few comely old buildings. The Shakespeare house, a detached double dwelling, once the home of the poet's father, stands on the north side of Henley Street. A room on the first floor, at the western end, is shown to visitors as the room in which the poet was born. There is not the slightest evidence to show that he was born there. One scanty scrap of fact exists to suggest that he was born at the eastern end. The two dwellings have now been converted into one, which serves as a museum. New Place, the house where Shakespeare died, was pulled down in the middle of the eighteenth century. For one museum the less let us be duly thankful.
The church in which Shakespeare, his wife, and little son are buried stands near the river. It is a beautiful building of a type common in the Cotswold country. It is rather larger and rather more profusely carved than most. Damp, or some mildness in the stone, has given much of the ornament a weathered look. Shakespeare is buried seventeen feet down near the north wall of the chancel. His wife is buried in another grave a few feet from him.
The country about Stratford is uninteresting, pretty, and well watered. A few miles away the Cotswold hills rise. They have a bold beauty, very pleasant after the flatness of the plain. The wolds towards Stratford grow many oaks and beeches. Farther east, they are wilder and barer. Little brooks spring up among the hills. The nooks and valleys are planted with orchards. Old, grey Cotswold farmhouses, and little, grey, lovely Cotswold villages show that in Shakespeare's time the country was prosperous and alive. It was sheep country then. The wolds were sheep walks. Life took thought for Shakespeare. She bred him, mind and bone, in a two-fold district of hill and valley, where country life was at its best and the beauty of England at its bravest. Afterwards she placed him where there was the most and the best life of his time. Work so calm as his can only have come from a happy nature, happily fated. Life made a golden day for her golden soul. The English blessed by that soul have raised no theatre for the playing of the soul's thanksgiving.
Legends about Shakespeare began to spring up in Stratford as soon as there was a demand for them. Legends are a stupid man's excuse for his want of understanding. They are not evidence. Setting aside the legends, the lies, the surmises and the imputations, several uninteresting things are certainly known about him.
We know that he was the first son and third child of John Shakespeare, a country trader settled at Stratford, and of Mary his wife; that he was baptised on the 26th April, 1564; and that in 1582 he got with child a woman named Anne or Agnes Hathaway, eight years older than himself. Her relatives saw to it that he married her. A daughter (Susanna) was born to him in May 1583, less than six months after the marriage. In January 1585 twins were born to him, a son (Hamnet, who died in 1596) and a daughter (Judith).
At this point he disappears. Legend, written down from a hundred to a hundred and sixty years after the event, says that he was driven out of the county for poaching, that he was a country school-master, that he made a "very bitter" ballad upon a landlord, that he tramped to London, that he held horses outside the theatre doors, and that at last he was received into a theatrical company "in a very mean rank." This is all legend, not evidence. That he was a lawyer's clerk, a soldier in the Low Countries, a seaman, or a printer, as some have written books to attempt to show, is not evidence, nor legend, but wild surmise. It might be urged, with as great likelihood, that he became a king, an ancient Roman, a tapster or a brothel keeper.
It is fairly certain that the company which first received him was the Earl of Leicester's company, then performing at The Theatre in Shoreditch. The company changed its patron and its theatre several times, but Shakespeare, having been admitted to it, stayed with it throughout his theatrical career. He acted with it at The Theatre, at the Rose and Globe Theatres, at the Court, at the Inns of Court, and possibly on many stages in the provinces. For many years he professed the quality of actor. Legend says that he acted well in what are called "character parts." Soon after his entrance into the profession he began to show a talent for improving the plays of others.
Nothing interesting is known of his subsequent life, except that he wrote great poetry and made money by it. It is plain that he was a shrewd, careful, and capable man of affairs, and that he cared, as all wise men care, for rank and an honourable state. He strove with a noble industry to obtain these and succeeded. He prospered, he bought New Place at Stratford, he invested in land, in theatre shares and in houses. During the last few years of his life he retired to New Place, where he led the life of a country gentleman. He died there on the 23rd April, 1616, aged fifty-two years. The cause of his death is not known. His wife and daughters survived him.
Little is known of his human relationships. He is described as "gentle." Had he been not gentle we should know more of him. Ben Jonson "loved the man," and says that "he was, indeed, honest and of an open and free nature." John Webster speaks of his "right happy and copious industry." An actor who wrote more than thirty plays during twenty years of rehearsing, acting, and theatre management, can have had little time for mixing with the world.
That we know little of his human relationships is one of the blessed facts about him. That we conjecture much is the penalty a nation pays for failing to know her genius when he appears.
Three portraits—a bust, an engraving, and a painting—have some claim to be considered as genuine portraits of Shakespeare. The first of these is the coloured half-length bust on the chancel wall in Stratford Church. This was made by one Gerard Janssen, a stonemason of some repute. It was placed in the church within seven years of the poet's death. It is a crude work of art; but it shows plainly that the artist had before him (in vision or in the flesh) a man of unusual vivacity of mind. The face is that of an aloof and sunny spirit, full of energy and effectiveness. Another portrait is that engraved for the title page of the first folio, published in 1623. The engraving is by Martin Droeshout, who was fifteen years old when Shakespeare died, and (perhaps) about twenty-two when he made the engraving. It is a crude work of art, but it shows plainly that the artist had before him the representation of an unusual man.
It is possible that the representation from which he engraved his plate was a painting on panel, now at Stratford. This painting (discovered in 1840) is now called "the Droeshout portrait." It is supposed to represent the Shakespeare of the year 1609. In the absence of proof, all that can be said of it is that it is certainly a work of the early seventeenth century, and that it looks as though it were the original of the engraving. No other "portrait of Shakespeare" has any claim to be considered as even a doubtful likeness.
There are, unfortunately, many graven images of Shakespeare. They are perhaps passable portraits of the languid, half-witted, hydrocephalic creatures who made them. As representations of a bustling, brilliant, profound, vivacious being, alive to the finger tips, and quick with an energy never since granted to man, they are as false as water.
THE ELIZABETHAN THEATRES
The Elizabethan theatres were square, circular, or octagonal structures, built of wood, lath and plaster, on stone or brick foundations. They stood about forty or forty-five feet high. They were built with three storeys, tiers, or galleries of seats which ran round three sides of the stage and part of the fourth. On the fourth side, at the back of the stage, was a tiring house in which the actors robed. The upper storeys of the tiring house could be used in the action, for a balcony, the upper storeys of a house, etc., according to the needs of the scene. It is possible, but not certain, that the tiring house itself was used in some plays to represent an inner chamber. The three storeys of seats were divided by partitions into "gentlemen's roomes" and "Twoe pennie roomes." The top storey was roofed in, either with thatch or tiles. The stage was roofed over in the same way. The space or yard between the stage and the galleries which surrounded it, was open to the sky. It contained no seats, but it held many spectators who stood. "Standing room" cost a penny. Those who stood could press right up to the stage, which was a platform four or five feet high projecting well out from the back of the house "to the middle of the yarde." It was possible to see the actors "in the round," instead of, as at present, like people in a picture. The audience got their emotions from the thing done and the thing said; not, as with us, from the situation. It was the custom of gallant gentlemen to hire stools placed on the stage itself. They sat and took tobacco there during the performance. Rank had then a greater privilege of impertinence than it has to-day. The performances took place by daylight. They were announced by the blowing of a trumpet. During a performance, a banner was hung from the theatre roof. The plays were played straight through, without waits. The only waits necessary in a theatre are (a) those which rest the actors and (b) those which give variety to the moods of the spectators. The double construction of Shakespeare's plays provided a sub-plot which held or amused the audience while the actors of the main plot rested. It is possible, but not certain, that the scenes were played on alternate halves of the stage, and that when one half of the stage was being cleared of its properties, or fitted with them, the play continued on the other half. It is not possible to speak of the general quality of the acting. Acting, like other dependent art, can only be good when it has good art to interpret. The acting was probably as good and as bad as the plays. Careful and impressive speaking and thoughtful, restrained gesture were qualities which Shakespeare and Ben Jonson praised. It is likely that the acting of the time was much quicker than modern acting. The plays were played very swiftly, without hesitation or dawdling over "business."
There was little or no scenery to most plays. The properties, i.e. chairs, beds, etc., were simple and few. The play was the thing. The aim of the play was to give not a picture of life, but a glorified vision of life. The object was not realism but illusion. The costumes were of great splendour. In some productions (as in Henry VIII) they were of an excessive splendour. Music and singing added much to the beauty of many scenes.
Women were not then allowed upon the stage. Women's parts were played by boys. Some have thought that this must have taken from the excellence of the performances. It is highly likely that it added much to it. Nearly all boys can act extremely well. Very few men and women can.
The playing of women's parts by boys may have limited Shakespeare's art. His women are kept within the range of thought and emotion likely to be understood by boys. This may account for their wholesome, animal robustness. There is no trace of the modern heroine, the common woman overstrained, or the idle woman in her megrims, in any Shakespearean play. The people of the plays are alive and hearty. They lead a vigorous life and go to bed tired. They never forget that they are animals. They never let any one else forget that they are also divine.
Three plays belong to Shakespeare's first period of original creative writing. It is fair to suppose that the least dramatically sound of the three was the one first written. We therefore take Love's Labour's Lost as his first play. It is commonly said by critics that Love's Labour's Lost is "the work of a young man." It might more justly be said of it that it is the work of a new kind of young man. The young man knows all the trick of the theatre and uses it, as a master always uses technique, for the statement of something new to the human soul. The play no longer speaks to the human soul; for though it is the work of a master, it is the work of a master not yet alive to the depths and still doubtful among the temptations to which intellect is subject. It is one of those works of art which remind us of Blake's saying, that "the best water is the newest." When it came out, with all the glitter of newness on it, the mind of man was flattered by a new possession. To us, the persons of the play are not much more than Time's toys, who never really lived, but only glittered a little.
Love's Labour's Lost.
Written. Between 1589 and 1592.
Published, after correction and augmentation, from a badly corrected copy, 1598.
Source of the Plot. It is thought that Shakespeare created the plot. The names of some of the characters were taken from people then living. The incident in Act V, scene ii (the entrance of the King of Navarre and his men, in Russian habits), was perhaps suggested by the visit of some Russians to Queen Elizabeth in 1584.
The Fable. The King of Navarre and his three courtiers, Biron, Dumaine and Longaville, have sworn to study for three years under the usual collegiate conditions of watching, fasting, and keeping from the sight and speech of women. They are forced to break this vow. The Princess of France comes with her Court to discuss State affairs.
At the discussion, the King falls in love with the Princess, his three courtiers fall in love with the ladies of her train.
The lovers send vows of love to their ladies. They plot to visit them in disguises of masks and Russian clothes. The ladies, hearing of this plot in time, mask themselves. The men fail to recognise them. Each disguised lover makes love-vows to the wrong woman.
The ladies twit the men with a double perjury: that they have broken their vow to study, and their love vows.
The play is kept within the bounds of fantastic comedy by the members of the sub-plot, who intrude with their fun whenever the action tends to become real. They intrude here, to impersonate the Nine Worthies before the two Courts. The farce of their performance is heightened by ragging from the courtiers. When it is at its height, two of the members of the sub-plot begin to quarrel. One blow would ruin the play by making it real. At the crisis the violence is avoided; the reality is brought unexpectedly, by beauty. A messenger enters to tell the Princess that her father is dead.
The ladies bid the men test their love by waiting for twelve months. The trifling of the earlier acts is shown at its moral value against a background of tragic happening. Accomplishments are compared with life.
The members of the sub-plot enter. They end the play with the singing of a lyric.
The play gives the reader the uncanny feeling that something real inside the piece is trying to get out of the fantasy. The lip-love rattles like a skeleton's bones. The love of Biron for Rosaline is real passion. The conflict throughout is the conflict of the unreal with the real.
The play seems to have been written in a literary or sentimental mood, and revised in a real mood. There is little in the early version that is not fantastic. The situation is fantastic, the people are fantastic, the language is fantastic with all a brilliant young master's delight in the play and glitter of cunning writing. The later version was written during the passionate years of Shakespeare's growth, after something had altered the world to him. The two versions are carelessly stuck together, with the effect of a rose-bush growing out of bones.
The Biron scenes, as we have them, seem to be the fruit of the mood that caused the sonnets. We do not know what caused that mood. The sonnets, like the plays, are as likely to be symbol as confession. The sonnets suggest that he loved an unworthy woman who robbed him of a beloved friend. Love's Labour's Lost and several other early plays suggest that he knew too well how love for the unworthy woman smirches honour, wakens, but holds captive, the reason, and wastes the spiritual gift in the praise of a form of death.
The dramatic method is dual. He presents in the plot something eternal in human life, and in the sub-plot something temporal in human fashion. In the plot of this play, his intention seems to have been this—to show intellect turned from a high resolve, from a consecration to mental labour, by the coming of women, who represent, perhaps, untutored, natural intelligence. Later in the play the high resolve of intellect is betrayed again, indirectly by women; but more by the sexual emotions which distort the vision till even the falsest, loosest woman appears beautiful and "celestial," and worth the sacrifice of intellect. The end of the play is not so much an end as a clearing of the road of life.
It often happens that the setting down of a doubt in careful words resolves it. This play seems to free Shakespeare's mind from doubts as to the right use and preparation of intellect. He presents with extreme care the different types of literary intellect: the man who shuts himself up to study, the man who sparkles in society, the man whom books have made stupid and the man whom style has made mad.
The play is full of the problem of what to do with the mind. Shall it be filled with study, or spent in society, or burnt in a passion, or tortured by strivings for style, or left as it is? Intellect is a problem to itself. Something of the problem seems (it would be wrong to be more certain) to have made this play not quite impersonal, as good art should be.
The problems are settled wisely, though not without a feeling of sacrifice. The beauty and the worth of learning are baits by which many intellects are lured from wisdom. The knowledge that life is the book to study, life at its liveliest, in the wits of women
"Keen Above the sense of sense,"
and that style is a poor thing beside the "honest plain words" which pierce, only comes with a sense of loss. Youth desires all the powers. A man with great gifts desires all the mental gifts. Youth with nothing but great gifts is never sure that the gifts will be sufficient. When this play was written, the stage was supplied with plays by men of trained intellects, who set more store upon the training than upon the intellect itself. The society of well-taught men, who know and quote and criticise, always makes the untaught uncertain and ill at ease. Shakespeare seems to have risen from the writing of this play, certain that poetry is not given to the trained mind, nor to the untrained mind, but to the quick and noble nature, earnest with the passion which stands the touchstone of death. "Subtlety," so Cromwell wrote, "may deceive you, integrity never will." The mind is her own armour. She will not fail for the want of a little learning or a little grace.
In the sub-plot, among much low comedy, this truth is emphasised by the triumph of Costard, a natural mind, in an encounter with Armado, an artificial mind. At the end of the play the "learned men" are made to compile a dialogue "in praise of the owl and the cuckoo." The dialogue is of a kind not usual among learned men, but the choice of the birds is significant. The last speech of the play: "The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo," seems to refer to Marlowe, as though Shakespeare found it hard to justify an art so unlike his master's. Marlowe climbs the peaks in the sun, his bow never off his shoulders. I walk the roads of the earth among men.
There is little character drawing in the piece. The Princess is a gracious figure; but hardly real to us till the last scene of the play, when she speaks wisely. Biron is more of a person. He presents his point of view in a moment of pleasant poetry—
"For where is any author in the world, Teaches such beauty as a woman's eye?"
He shows a prejudice against Boyet, the courtier in attendance on the Princess. This prejudice is expressed bitterly—
"This is the flower that smiles on every one,"
with the bitterness usual in Shakespeare when treating of the flunkey mind. The ladies of the Princess's train all talk exactly alike, with sharp feminine wit, infinitely swift in thrust. None of them has personality; but Rosaline is described for us, body and disposition. The members of the sub-plot are mental fashions well observed. Costard alone has life. Shakespeare came from the country. In the country a thinking man is reminded daily of the shrewdness of unspoiled minds. Armado, Costard's opponent, lives for us by one phrase—
"The sweet war-man is dead and rotten: sweet chucks, beat not the bones of the buried: when he breathed, he was a man."
It is interesting to see Shakespeare's mind trying for vividness. In his maturity he had supremely the power of giving life. In this early play one can see his first conscious literary efforts towards the obtaining of the power. Longaville (in Act II, sc. i) makes the scene alive by the question—
"I beseech you a word. What is she in the white?"
(Who is the woman in the white dress?) The simple but telling means of giving reality is repeated a few lines later in Biron's question—
"What's her name in the cap?"
In Act V, sc. ii, the vividness is given in a strangely pathetic passage, that haunts, after the play is laid down. Two of the ladies are talking of Cupid—
Rosaline. You'll ne'er be friends with him: he killed your sister.
Katharine. He made her melancholy, sad, and heavy; And so she died: had she been light, like you, Of such a merry, nimble, stirring spirit, She might have been a granddam ere she died.
The power of giving life in a line is seen in the remark of Dumaine (Act IV, sc. iii)—
"To look like her, are chimney-sweepers black."
The play is full of experiments. Some of it is written in a loose, swinging couplet, some in quatrains, some in blank verse, some in the choice, picked prose made the fashion by Lyly. It contains more lyrics than any other Shakespearean play. One of the lyrics, a sonnet in Alexandrines, is the fruit of a real human passion. The lyric at the end of the play is the loveliest thing ever said about England. If this play and most of the other plays were modern works, the Censor would not allow them to be performed publicly. The men and women converse with a frankness and suggestiveness not now usual, except among the young. Shakespeare is blamed for not conforming to standards unknown to his generation.
He is blamed for not being delicate-minded like the great Greek tragic poets. The Greek tragic poets wrote about the heroic life of legend. Shakespeare wrote about life. A man who writes about life must accept life for what it is, as largely an animal thing. Those who pretend that life is only lived in boudoirs, are in peril, and the world is in peril through them.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
Written. Before 1592.
Published, in the first folio, 1623.
Source of the Plot. The story of a woman who follows her lover in the disguise of a page-boy, hears him serenade another woman, and acts as a go-between in his suit to this other woman, is to be found in the second book of La Diana Enamorada, a pastoral romance, in prose, freely sprinkled with lyrics, by Jorge de Montemayor, a Portuguese who wrote in Spanish about the middle of the sixteenth century. De Montemayor's story is not complicated by a Valentine. He calls the girl Felismena, her lover Felix, and the second woman Celia. His tale ends with Celia dying for love of the supposed page-boy.
A play based on this story was acted in England in 1584. It is now lost. The gist of the story was published in lame English verses, by Barnabe Googe, in 1563.
The Fable. Valentine and Proteus, the two gentlemen, are friends. Valentine is about to travel. Proteus, in love with Julia, will not go with him. Antonio, Proteus' father, sends Proteus after Valentine. Julia resolves to follow him in boy's clothes. Valentine at Milan falls in love with the Duke's daughter, Silvia, whom the Duke plans to marry to one Thurio. Proteus, arriving at Milan, also falls in love with Silvia. He becomes jealous of Valentine.
Valentine tells him that he has planned to escape with Silvia that night. Proteus betrays this plot to the Duke. The Duke banishes Valentine and sends Proteus to Silvia to press the suit of Thurio.
Valentine joins a gang of outlaws.
Proteus woos Silvia for himself, and is rejected by her.
Julia, who has come in boy's dress from Verona to look for Proteus, finds him still unsuccessfully courting Silvia. She enters his service as a page. He sends her on a message to Silvia.
On her way to deliver the message, Julia meets Silvia flying from home in search of Valentine.
In her search for Valentine, Silvia is caught by the gang of outlaws.
Proteus rescues her, and threatens to resume his suit with violence.
Valentine, entering, stops this.
Proteus sues for pardon to Valentine and Julia. He is received to mercy. The Duke after dismissing Thurio, pardons Valentine, and grants him Silvia's hand in marriage.
Love's Labour's Lost is fantasy. The Two Gentlemen of Verona deals with real human relationships. It is a better play than the fantasy, though the fantasy has moments of better poetry. It carries on one of the problems raised in Love's Labour's Lost. It is the work of a troubled mind. It comes from the mood in which the sonnets were written.
Twice in Love's Labour's Lost the act of oath-breaking, of being forsworn, is important to the play's structure. Though the vows broken in that play are fantastic, the characters feel real dishonour at the breaking of them. The play shows that though the idea of vow-breaking was in Shakespeare's mind, he had not then the power, or the human experience, or the mental peace, to grapple with it fairly, or see it truly. The idea, that the person for whom the vows are broken brings with her the punishment of the sin of vow-breaking, haunts the mind of Biron (in Act IV, sc. iii)—
"Sow'd cockle reap'd no corn: And justice always whirls in equal measure: Light wenches may prove plagues to men forsworn."
In the Two Gentlemen of Verona, this idea, the idea that treachery caused by some obsession is at the root of most tragedy, was treated by him at length, perhaps for the first time.
That it haunted him then, and remained all through his life as the pole-star of dramatic action is evident to all who read his works as poetry should be read. It is the law of his imagination.
Passion, not weakness of will, but strength of will blinded, is the commonest cause of treachery among us. The great poets have agreed that anything that distorts the mental vision, anything thought of too much, is a danger to us. Passion that with the glimmer of a new drunkenness blinds the mature to the life and death memories of marriage, and kills in the immature the memory of love, friendship, and past benefits, is a form of destruction. In its action as a destroyer, it is the subject of Shakespeare's greatest plays. In the Two Gentlemen of Verona he is interested less in the destruction than in the moral blindness that leads to it.
Shakespeare's method is simple. He shows us two charming young men becoming morally blind with passion, in a company not so blinded. The only other "inconstant" person in the play (Sir Thurio) is inconstant from that water-like quality in the mind that floods with the full moon, and ebbs like a neap soon after. Even the members of the sub-plot, the two servants, are constant, the one to his master, who beats him, the other to the dog that gets him beaten. A lesser mind would sit in judgment in such a play. The task of genius is not to sit in judgment.
"Our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together."
Shakespeare neither praises nor blames. His task is to see justly. It is we who conclude that treachery looks ugly beside its opposite.
Of the fine scenes in the play, sc. iv in Act II, where Valentine and Sir Thurio walk with Silvia, with whom they are both in love, is the liveliest. The two men bicker across the lady, as though the next word would bring blows. The demure pleasure of Silvia in being quarrelled for, is indicated most masterly in less than thirty words. Act III, sc. i, where the Duke discovers Valentine's plot to escape with Silvia, is a passage of noble dramatic power, doubly interesting because it shows the justice of Shakespeare's vision. Valentine, the constant friend and lover, is exposed in an act of treachery to his benefactor. The scenes in which the disguised Julia witnesses her lover's falseness, and the scene in which the play is brought to an end, are deeply and nobly affecting. Theatre managers play Shakespeare as though he were an old fashion of the mind instead of the seer of the eternal in life. They should play this play as a vision of something that is eternally treacherous, bringing misery to the faithful, the noble, and the feeling. One of the noblest things in the play is the forgiveness at the end. Passion has taken Proteus into strange byways of treachery. He has been false to Julia, to Valentine, to the Duke, to Thurio, one falseness leading to another, till he is in a wood of the soul, tangled in sin. It only wants that he be false to Silvia, too. Passion makes his eyes a little blinder for an instant. He adds that treachery to the others. Power to see clearly is the only cure for passion. Discovery gives that power. Valentine's words—
"Who should be trusted now, when one's right hand Is perjured to the bosom? Proteus, I am sorry I must never trust thee more, But count the world a stranger for thy sake. The private wound is deepest...."
followed so soon by Julia's words—
"Behold her that gave aim to all thy oaths, And entertained them deeply in her heart: How oft hast thou with perjury cleft the root.... It is the lesser blot, modesty finds, Women to change their shapes, than men their minds"—
rouse Proteus to the confounding instant of self-recognition. His answer is like a voice from one of the later plays. It is in Shakespeare's grand manner. It does not read like a piece of revision done in the poet's maturity; but as though Shakespeare suddenly found his utterance in a moment of vision—
"Than men their minds! 'tis true. O heaven! Were man But constant, he were perfect: that one error Fills him with faults; makes him run through all the sins: Inconstancy falls off, ere it begins."
A word of excuse would brand him as base. He is ashamed and guilty; but not base. He cannot say more than that he is sorry, and this only to Valentine. Valentine accepts sorrow with the utterance of one of the religious ideas which seem to have been constantly in Shakespeare's mind.
"By penitence the Eternal's wrath's appeased."
His conduct towards Proteus after this forgiveness is so wise with delicate tact that the reader is reminded of Shelley's treatment of Hogg, in a similar case.
The suggestion of the character of Silvia has an austere beauty. The two gentlemen are limited by the play's needs. The figure of Valentine is the more complete of the two. He is an interesting study of one of those grave young men who, when tested by life, show themselves wise beyond their years. Among the minor characters, that of Eglamour, an image of constancy to a dead woman, is the most beautiful. He is one of the strange, many-sorrowed souls, vowed to an idea, to whom Shakespeare's characters so often turn when the world bears hard. The low comedy of Launce could hardly be lower; but his phrase "the other squirrel" (in Act IV, sc. iv) is a good stroke. The great mind is full of vitality on all the planes.
There is little superb verse in the play. The lyric, "Who is Silvia?" shows a marvellous lyrical art, working without emotion to imitate an effect of music. The proverb, "make a virtue of necessity," occurs in Act IV, sc. ii. The fine lines—
"O, how this spring of love resembleth The uncertain glory of an April day"—
and the pretty speech of Julia in Act II, sc. vii—
"I'll be as patient as a gentle stream, And make a pastime of each weary step, Till the last step have brought me to my love; And there I'll rest, as, after much turmoil, A blessed soul doth in Elysium"—
Man is so eager to know about Shakespeare that he is tempted to find personal confession in the plays. It is true that the art of a young man is too immature to be impersonal. In an achieved style we see the man; in all striving for style we see what hurts him. But in poetry, human experience is wrought to symbol, and symbol is many virtued, according to the imaginative energy that broods upon it. It is said that Shakespeare holds a mirror up to life. He who looks into a mirror closely generally sees nothing but himself.
The Comedy of Errors.
Written. Before 1594.
Published, in the first folio, 1623.
Source of the Plot. The plot was taken from the Menaechmi of Plautus. Whether Shakespeare read the play in Latin, or in a translation, or heard it from a friend, or saw it acted, is not known. All four are possible.
The sub-plot, in this case a duplication of the plot, was suggested by a part of the Amphitruo of Plautus.
The play is brought on to the plane of human feeling by the character of AEgeon. This character was suggested by a story in Gli Suppositi (The Supposes) of Ariosto.
The Fable. Like all comedies of mistake, the Comedy of Errors has an extremely complicated plot. The play consists of a number of ingeniously contrived situations in which either the Antipholus and the Dromio of Ephesus are mistaken for the Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse, or those of Syracuse are mistaken for those of Ephesus. The comedy of mistake is touched with beauty by the romantic addition of the restoration of old AEgeon to his long-lost wife.
Poets are great or little according to the nobleness of their endeavour to build a mansion for the soul. Shakespeare, like other poets, grew by continual, very difficult mental labour, by the deliberate and prolonged exercise of every mental weapon, and by the resolve to do not "the nearest thing," precious to human sheep, but the difficult, new and noble thing, glimmering beyond his mind, and brought to glow there by toil. We do not know when the play was written, nor why it was written. If it were not written by special request, for reward, it must have been chosen either for the rest given by a subject external to the mind, or as a self-set exercise in the difficult mental labour of comic dramatic construction. Every playwright sees the comic opportunity of the Menaechmi fable. A playwright not yet sure of his art sees and admires behind the comedy the firm, intricate mental outline that has kept the play alive for more than two thousand years.
The Menaechmi of Plautus is a piece of very skilful theatrical craft. It is almost heartless. In bringing it out of the Satanic kingdom of comedy into the charities of a larger system Shakespeare shows for the first time a real largeness of dramatic instinct. In his handling of the tricky ingenious plot he achieves (what, perhaps, he wrote the play to get) a dexterous, certain play of mind. He strikes the ringing note, time after time. It cannot be said that the verse, or the sense of character, or the invention is better than in the other early plays. It is not. The play is on a lower plane than any of his other works. It is the only Shakespearean play without a deep philosophical idea. If it be not a special commission, or an exercise in art, it is perhaps another instance of the price great men pay for being happy. It is certainly the fruit of a happier mood than that which bore the other early plays. It is also the first play that shows a fine, sustained power of dramatic construction.
It is so well constructed (for the simple Elizabethan theatre and the bustle of the Elizabethan speech) that any unspoiled mind is held by it, when it is acted as Shakespeare meant it to be acted. The closeness and firmness of the dramatic texture is the work of an acutely clear mind driven at white heat and mercilessly judged at each step. Those who do not understand the nature of dramatic art should read the ninety odd verses in which AEgeon tells his story (in Act I, sc. i). They would do well to consider the power of mind that has told so much in so few words. They will find an instance of Shakespeare's happy use of stage trick, in the final scene, where, after the general recognition, Dromio of Syracuse again mistakes Antipholus of Ephesus for his master.
Rare poetical power is shown in the making of the play. Little beauty adorns the action. The speech of Adriana (in Act II, sc. ii) against the obsession of passion that leads to treachery in marriage, is passionate and profound. It is the most deeply felt speech in the early plays. Adriana's husband is frequenting another woman who, having the charm that so often goes with worthlessness, has a power of attracting that is sometimes refused to the noble. Adriana beseeches him not to break the tie that binds them. Two souls that have been each other's are not to be torn apart without death to one of them. With that sympathy for the suffering mind which gives Shakespeare all his power—
("My deepest sense, how hard true sorrow hits")
he gives to her speech an unendurable reality. Reality, however obtained, is the only cure for an obsession. As far as words can teach in such a case Adriana's words teach the reality of her husband's sin.
"How dearly it would touch thee to the quick, Shouldst thou but hear I were licentious, And that this body, consecrate to thee, By ruffian lust should be contaminate! Wouldst them not spit at me and spurn at me, And hurl the name of husband in my face, And tear the stain'd skin off my harlot brow, And from my false hand cut the wedding-ring...? My blood is mingled with the crime of lust: For, if we two be one, and thou play false, I do digest the poison of thy flesh."
There is no other poetry of this intensity in the play.
It is interesting to compare Shakespeare's mind with Plautus's in the description of Epidamnum. Plautus says—
"This is the home of the greatest lechers and drunkards.
"Very many tricksters and cheaters live in this city.
"Nowhere are wheedling whores more cunning at bilking people."
Shakespeare gives the horror a spiritual turn that adds much to the intensity of the farce.
"They say, this town is full of cozenage: As, nimble jugglers that deceive the eye, Dark-working sorcerers that change the mind, Soul-killing witches that deform the body, Disguised cheaters, prating mountebanks, And many such like liberties of sin."
The play is amusing. The plot is intricate. The interest of the piece is in the plot. When a plot engrosses the vitality of a dramatist's mind, his character-drawing dies; so here. It is sufficient to say that the character of AEgeon is the best in the play
Source of the Plot. (?)
The Fable. Tamora, Queen of the Goths, whose firstborn son is sacrificed by Titus Andronicus, determines to be revenged. She succeeds in her determination. Titus and his daughter are mutilated. Two of the Andronici, his sons, are beheaded.
Titus determines to be revenged. He bakes the heads of two of Tamora's sons in a pasty, and serves them up for her to eat. He then stabs her, after stabbing his daughter. He is himself stabbed on the instant; but his surviving son stabs his murderer. Tamora's paramour is then sentenced to be buried alive, and the survivors (about half the original cast) move off (as they say) "to order well the State."
This play shows an instinct for the stage and a knowledge of the theatre. It seems to have been a popular piece. A knowledge of the theatre will often make something foolish theatrically effective. So here.
The piece is nearly worthless. The turning of the tide of revenge, from Tamora against Andronicus, and then from Andronicus against Tamora, is the theme. It is a simple theme. Man cannot have simplicity without hard thought, and hard thought is never worthless, though it may be applied unworthily.
There can be no doubt that Shakespeare wrote a little of this tragedy; it is not known when; nor why. Poets do not sin against their art unless they are in desperate want. Shakespeare certainly never touched this job for love. There is only one brief trace of his great, rejoicing triumphant manner. It is possible that the play was brought to him by his theatre-manager, with some such words as these: "This piece is very bad, but it will succeed, and I mean to produce it, if I can start rehearsals at once. Will you revise it for me? Please do what you can with it, and write in lines and passages where you think it is wanting. And whatever happens please let me have it by Monday."
The only poetry in the play comes in the three lines—
"You sad-fac'd men, people and sons of Rome, By uproar sever'd, like a flight of fowl Scatter'd by winds and high tempestuous gusts."
King Henry VI, Part I.
Published, in the first folio, 1623.
Source of the Plot. Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles.
The Fable. The play begins shortly after the death of King Henry V. Henry VI is too young to rule. There is a feud between Gloucester, the Lord Protector, and Cardinal Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester. In France, where Talbot is besieging Orleans, the English have had many losses. Joan of Arc begins her conquering progress by causing Talbot to raise the siege.
A feud between the Duke of York (the white rose faction) and the Earl of Somerset (the red rose faction) becomes acute, in spite of King Henry's personal intercession. It intensifies the feud between the Lord Protector and the Cardinal. In France, Talbot is killed in battle. The English are beaten from their possessions. Joan of Arc is taken, tried, and burned.
The menace of civil trouble hangs over King Henry's court. The feud between the factions of the roses threatens to break into war. The Earl of Suffolk (one of the red rose faction) schemes to marry King Henry to Margaret of Anjou. It is made plain that he means to become Margaret's lover so that he may rule England through her. A disgraceful peace is concluded with France. The play ends with Suffolk's departure to arrange the King's marriage with Margaret.
It is plain that this play is not the work of one mind. Part of it is the work of a man who saw a big tragic purpose in events. The rest is the work of at least two mechanical (sometimes muddy) minds, who neither criticised nor understood, but had some sense of the pageant. There are bright marks in the play where Shakespeare's mind touched it.
"Glory is like a circle in the water, Which never ceaseth to enlarge itself, Till, by broad spreading, it disperse to nought."
"If underneath the standard of the French She carry armour."
"Now thou art come unto a feast of death."
"Thus, while the vulture of sedition Feeds in the bosom of such great commanders, Sleeping neglection doth betray to loss The conquest of our scarce-cold conqueror, That ever-living man of memory, Henry the Fifth."
The work as a whole is one of the old formless chronicle plays, which inspired the remark that if an English dramatist were to make a play of St. George he would begin with the birth of the Dragon. In Act II Shakespeare's mind both directs and explains the welter. The scene in the Temple Gardens, where the men of the two factions pluck the red and white roses, is like music after discord. The play is lifted into poetry. The big tragic purpose broods; something fateful quickens. The next scene, where Mortimer dies in prison, is another instance of the power of great intellect to give life. The dying Mortimer is carried in, to show how the imminent tragedy has been for long years preparing, in countless passionate men, each of whom has shaped it, little by little, out of lust and hate, till the spiritual measure tips towards justice.
The only other scenes that bear marks of Shakespeare's mind are those in Act IV, in which Talbot meets his death. The verse of these scenes is often careless, but it has a bright variety, pleasant to the mind after the strutting verse (wearily reiterating one prosodic effect, like choppy water) of the other authors. Some people claim that Shakespeare wrote the whole of this play. The intellect changes much in life; but never in kind, only in degree. Shakespeare's mind could play with dirt and relish dirt, but it was never base and never blunt. The base mind is betrayed by its conceptions, not by its amusements. Shakespeare's mind could never, at any stage of his career, have sunk to conceive the disgusting scene in which Joan of Arc pleads. Nor could he at any time have planned a play in which the moral idea is a trapping to physical action.
King Henry VI, Part II.
Published, in the crude original form, 1593. When first published, the play was called "The First part of the Contention betwixt the two famous houses of Yorke and Lancaster." This version seems to have been written by Greene and Peele. It contains passages (improving additions) that resemble Shakespeare's work; but the work is very crude. The version as a whole reads like a long scenario.
After the first production of this version, Shakespeare and some other writer, possibly Marlowe, revised, improved and enlarged it. This revised version, the Second Part of King Henry VI, as we now have it, was first published in the first folio in 1623.
Source of the Plot. Edward Hall's Chronicle.
The Fable. The play begins with the arrival of Margaret of Anjou at the Court of King Henry VI. An altercation among the Lords in scene i. explains the political situation to those who have not seen the first part of the trilogy. The subject is the gradual ascent to power of Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York. The play is turbulent with passions. The subject is obscured and made grander by the war of interests and lusts among the nobles of the Court. The Queen's party, the Duke Humphrey's party, and Cardinal Beaufort's party, make a welter of hate and greed, against which the Duke of York's cool purpose stands out, as Augustus stands out against the wreck of old Rome. The action is interrupted and lightened by the cheat of Simpcox and by the rebellion of Jack Cade. In modern theatres the passage of time is indicated by the dropping of a curtain and by a few words printed on a programme. The Elizabethan theatre had neither curtain nor programme. The passage of time was suggested by some action on the stage as here. The play advances the tragedy of the King by removing the figures of Duke Humphrey, the Cardinal, and the Earl of Suffolk. It ends with the first triumph of the white rose faction, under the Duke of York, at the battle of St. Albans.
It is plain that Shakespeare worked upon the revision of this play with a big tragic conception. The first half of the piece is very fine. He makes the crude, muddy, silly welter of the Contention significant and complete. He reduces it to a simple, passionate order, deeply impressive. The poet who worked with him, worked in sympathy with his dramatic intention. If this poet were Marlowe, as some believe (and the clearness of the man's brain seems to point to this), it is another proof that the two great poets were friends during the last months of Marlowe's life. It is plain that something stopped the revision before it was finished. The latter half of the play is only half written. It has flesh and blood but no life. It reads like work that has been wrought to a pitch by two or three re-writings, and then left without the final writing that turns imagination into vision. It would be interesting to know why Shakespeare left the play in this state. Perhaps there was no time to make it perfect before the rehearsals began. Perhaps the murder of Marlowe upset the plans of the capitalist who was speculating in the play. If it had been finished in the spirit of the first two and a half acts it would have been one of the grandest of the historical plays.
The poetry of the two completed acts is often noble. The long speech of York, in Act I, coming, as it does, after a clash of minds turbid with passion, is most noble. It gives a terror to what follows. The calm mind makes no mistake. The judgment of a man without heart seems as infallible as fate, as beautiful, and as ghastly. All happens as he foresees. All the cruelty and bloodiness of the latter half of the play come from that man's beautifully clear, cool brain. He stands detached. One little glimmer of heart in him would alter everything. The glimmer never comes. Humphrey is poisoned, Suffolk is beheaded, the Cardinal dies. Cade, in that most awful scene of the mob in power, looks at two heads on pikes with the remark—
"Is not this braver? Let them kiss one another, for they loved well when they were alive....
Now part them again."
These are some of the results of the working of a fine intellect in which—
"Faster than spring-time showers comes thought on thought, And not a thought but thinks on dignity."
There is a terrible scene at the Cardinal's death-bed. The Cardinal is discovered in bed "raving and staring as if he were madde." He has poisoned his old enemy, the Duke Humphrey. Now he is dying; the murder is on his soul, and nothing has been gained by it. The path is made clearer for his enemies perhaps. That is the only result. Now he is dying, the waste of mind is at an end, and the figure of the victim is at the foot of the bed.
"Bring me unto my trial when you will. Died he not in his bed? where should he die? Can I make men live, whe'r they will or no? O, torture me no more, I will confess. Alive again? then show me where he is: I'll give a thousand pound to look upon him. He hath no eyes, the dust hath blinded them. Comb down his hair: Look! look! it stands upright. Like lime-twigs set to catch my winged soul. Give me some drink."
Some people find humour in the Simpcox and Cade scenes. There is more sadness and horror of heart than humour. The minds of the two great poets were brooding together on life. They saw man working with intellect to bring ruin, and working without intellect to bring something beastlier than man should know. In its unfinished state the play is without the exaltation of great tragedy. It would be one of the hopeless plays, were it not for the passionate energy of mind with which the nobles alter life. There is little human feeling in the play. Warwick by Gloucester's corpse shows the sense of rectitude of a police inspector. At the death-bed of the Cardinal, he makes the remark of a fiend—
"See how the pangs of death do make him grin."
The one human, tender figure is that of the King, who betrays his friend, his only true friend—
"With sad unhelpful tears; and with dimm'd eyes Looks after him, and cannot do him good."
This gentle, bewildered soul makes the only human remarks in the play. In Shakespeare's vision it is from such souls, planted, to their own misery, among spikes and thorns, that the flower of human goodness blossoms.
King Henry VI, Part III.
Published, in the crude original form, 1595. When first published, the play was called "The True Tragedie of Richard Duke of Yorke, and the Death of good King Henrie the Sixt, with the whole contention betweene the two Houses of Lancaster and Yorke." This version seems to have been by Greene, Peele, Marlowe, or by some combination among the three. There are some marks of Shakespeare's hand upon it; but not many. Afterwards the piece was revised and enlarged to its present form by some unknown hand. Shakespeare added a few touches to this revision. It was printed in the first folio as his original work.
Source of the Plot. Edward Hall's Chronicle. Raphael Holinshed's Chronicle.
The Fable. The play describes the rise to power of Edward, Duke of York, afterwards Edward IV. It carries on the story of the reign of Henry VI from the time of his deposition by Richard, Duke of York, to the time of his murder by Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Various other tragedies are developed by the plot. Richard, Duke of York, is defeated and put to death. The Earl of Warwick rises to power, makes Edward, Duke of York, King, revolts from him, restores Henry VI, is attacked, defeated, and killed in battle. Richard, Duke of Gloucester, begins to cherish ambition, and sets bloodily to work to gratify it. Edward, Duke of York, after one deposition, due to his own treachery, obtains the supreme power, and rules as King.
Shakespeare had little hand in this ruthless chronicle. The idea of the piece seems to be this, that—
"It is war's prize to take all vantages,"
that mercy has no place in war, that an act of mercy in war is more fatal than defeat, and that the parfit gentle knight, if he wish to prosper, must greet his father after battle with some such remark as—
"I cleft his beaver with a downright blow; That this is true, father, behold his blood."
There are three scenes that rouse human emotion: that in Act I, sc. iv, where Margaret of Anjou taunts the captured York before putting him to death; that in Act II, sc. v, where King Henry wishes himself either dead, or called to some gentler trade than kingship; and that at the end, after the battle of Tewkesbury, where the Prince of Wales is murdered in his mother's presence. The second of these, the lamentation of King Henry, is an enlargement, done in leisure, from a suggestion in the early version. It is a very beautiful example of the quiet, limpid running rhetoric that marks Shakespeare's best moments in the days before he attained to power.
"So minutes, hours, days, moneths and years, Pass'd over to the end they were created, Would bring white hairs unto a quiet grave. Ah, what a life were this. How sweet. How lovely. Gives not the hawthorn-bush a sweeter shade To shepherds looking on their silly sheep, Than doth a rich-embroidered canopy To kings that fear their subjects' treachery."
A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Written. 1595 (?)
Source of the Plot. The fantasy is of Shakespeare's making. Some of it was perhaps current in popular belief. Names and lesser incidents were suggested by various books. He took little bits from various sources, added them to the vision, and turned upon the whole the light of his mind. If any author laid under contribution were to recognise his bantling, he could only cry to it, "Bless thee, Bottom, thou art translated." Shakespeare did never this particular kind of wrong but with just cause.
The Fable. Theseus, Duke of Athens, is about to marry Hippolyta. Bottom, the weaver, and his friends, plan to play the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe before the Duke after the wedding.
Hermia and Lysander, two lovers, whose match is opposed, plan to escape from Athens to a state where they can marry.
Demetrius, in love with Hermia, is loved by Helena.
Oberon, King of the fairies, planning to punish his Queen Titania, orders Puck to procure a juice that will make her dote upon the next thing seen by her.
Helena pursues Demetrius into the wood of the fairies. Titania, anointed with the juice, falls in love with Bottom. Lysander, anointed with the juice, falls in love with Helena. The confusion caused by these enchantments (accidentally) makes the main action of the play. When the purpose of Oberon is satisfied, the enchantments are removed. The cross purposes of the lovers cease. Theseus causes Hermia to wed Lysander, and Helena to wed Demetrius. Bottom and his company perform their tragedy, and all ends happily.
It is a strange and sad thing that the English poets have cared little for England; or, caring for England, have had little sense of the spirit of the English. Many of our poets have written botanical verses, and braggart verses, many more have described faithfully the appearance of parts of the land at different seasons. Only two or three show the mettle of their pasture in such a way that he who reads them can be sure that the indefinable soul of England has given their words something sacred and of the land.
Shakespeare attained to all the spiritual powers of the English. He made a map of the English character. We have not yet passed the frontiers of it. It is one of his humanities that the English country, which made him, always meant much to him, so that, now, wherever his works go, something of the soul of that country goes too, to comfort exiles over the sea. Man roams the world, wandering and working; but he is not enough removed from the beasts to escape the prick in the heart that turns the tired horse homeward, and sets the old fox padding through the woods to die near the earth where he was whelped. Shakespeare's heart always turned for quiet happiness to the country where he lived as a boy. In this play, he turned not to the squires and farm-folk, but to the country itself, and to those genii of the country, the fairies, believed in, and often seen by country people, and reverenced by them as the cause of mishaps. Imagination in a work of art is a transmuting of the known by understanding. For some reason, perhaps home-sickness, perhaps weariness of the city-jostle, that those who have lived the country life cannot call life, or it may be, perhaps, from an exultation in the bounty of the world to give pleasure to the mind, the country meant very much to Shakespeare in the months during which he wrote the last of the English plays. In writing this play, his imagination conceived Athens as an English town, possibly Stratford, or some other more pleasant place, with a wood, haunted by fairies, only a league away, where the mind could be happy listening to the voice of the beloved—
"More tuneable than lark to shepherd's ear, When wheat is green, when hawthorn buds appear."
There was a memory of happiness about the wood. It was
"the wood, where often you and I Upon faint primrose-beds were wont to lie, Emptying our bosoms of their counsel sweet."
In this wood, where Theseus goes a-hunting, Shakespeare, in his fantasy, allows the fairies to vex the life of mortals. For a little while he fancied, or tried to fancy, that those who are made mad and blind by the obsessions of passion are made so at the whim of powers outside life, and that the accidents of life, bad seasons, personal deformities, etc., are due to something unhappy in a capricious immortal world, careless of this world, but easily offended and appeased by mortal action.
All the earth of England is consecrated by the intense memories of the English. In this play Shakespeare set himself free to tell his love for the earth of England that had ministered to his mind with beauty through the years of youth. Walking in the Cotswold country, when
"russet-pated choughs, many in sort Rising and cawing at the gun's report, Sever themselves and madly sweep the sky,"
gives to the passenger a sense of the enduringness of the pageant upon which those seeing eyes looked more than three centuries ago.
Romeo and Juliet.
Published, in a mutilated form, 1597.
Source of the Plot. The story existed in many forms, mostly Italian. Shakespeare took it from Arthur Broke's metrical version (Romeus and Juliet), and possibly consulted the prose version in William Painter's Palace of Pleasure. The tale had been dramatised and performed before Arthur Broke published his poem in 1562. The play (if it existed a generation later) may have helped Shakespeare. It is now lost.
The Fable. The houses of Montague and Capulet are at feud in Verona.
Romeo, of the house of Montague, falls in love with Juliet, of the house of Capulet. She returns his love. A friar marries them.
In a street brawl, which Romeo does his best to stop, Mercutio, Romeo's friend, is killed by Tybalt, Juliet's cousin. Carried away by passion, Romeo kills Tybalt. He is banished from Verona.
The Capulets plan to marry Juliet to the Count Paris.
Juliet, in great distress, consults the Friar who married her to Romeo. He gives her a potion to create an apparent death in her, to the end that she may be buried in the family vault, taken thence and restored to life by himself, and then conveyed to Romeo. He writes to Romeo, telling him of the plan; but the letter miscarries. Juliet takes the potion, and is laid in the tomb as dead.
The Count Paris comes by night to the tomb, to mourn her there. Romeo, who has heard only that his love is dead, also comes to the tomb. The two lovers fight, and Romeo kills Paris. He then takes poison and dies at Juliet's side.
The Friar enters to restore Juliet to life. Juliet awakens to find her lover dead. The Friar, being alarmed, leaves the tomb. Juliet stabs herself with Romeo's dagger and dies.
The feud of the Montagues and Capulets is brought to an end. The leaders of the two houses are reconciled over the bodies of the lovers.
This play is one of the early plays, written, perhaps, before Shakespeare was thirty years old. It was much revised during the next few years; but a good deal of the early work remains. Much of the early work is in rhymed couplets. Much is in picked prose full of quibbles and mistakings of the word. Another sign of early work is the mention of the dark lady, the Rosaline of the Comedy of Errors, here called by the same name, and described in similar terms: viz. a high forehead, a hard heart, a white face, big black eyes and red lips. Perhaps she appeared as one of the characters in the early drafts of the play. In the play as we have it she is only talked of as a love of Romeo's who is easily thrown aside when Juliet enters.
The play differs slightly from the other plays, which deal, as we have said, with the treacheries caused by obsessions. The subject of this play is not so much the treachery as the obsession that causes it. The obsession is the blind and raging one of sudden, gratified youthful love. That storm in the blood has never been so finely described. It takes sudden hold upon two young passionate natures, who have hardly met each other. It drives out instantly from Romeo a sentimental love that had made him mopish and wan. It brings to an end in two hearts, filial affection and that perhaps stronger thing, attachment to family. It makes the charming young man a frantic madman, careless of everything but his love. It makes the sweet-natured girl a deceitful, scheming liar, less frantic, but not less devoted than her lover. It results almost at once in five violent deaths, and a legacy of broken-heartedness not easily told. The only apparent good of the disease is that it destroys its victims swiftly. It may also be said of it that it teaches the old that there is something in life, some power not dreamed of in their philosophy.
Shakespeare saw the working of the fever. He also saw behind it the working of fate to avenge an obsession that had blinded the eyes of men too long. The feud of the two houses had long vexed Verona. The blood of those killed in the feud was crying out for the folly to stop, so that life might be lived. What business had sparks like Mercutio, and rebels like Tybalt, with Death? Both are life's bright fire: they ought to live. Fate seemed to plot to end the folly by letting Romeo fall in love with Juliet. Let the two houses be united by marriage, as at the end of Richard III. But love is a storm, sudden love a madness, and the fire of youth a disturber of the balances. Hate and hot blood put an end to all chance of marriage. There is nothing left but the desperate way, which is yet the wise way, recommended by the one wise man in the cast. With a little patience, this way would lead the couple to happiness. Impatience, the fever in the blood that began these coils, makes the way lead them to death. Accident, or rather the possession by others of that prudence wanting in himself, keeps Romeo from the knowledge of the friar's plans. A too hasty servant tells him that Juliet is dead. He too hastily believes the news. He takes horse at once in a state of frenzy, hardly heeding what his man says. He comes to the tomb in Verona, and finds there a lover as desperate as himself. They fight there, madly. The less mad of the two is killed, the more frantic (Romeo) kills himself. The friar, coming to this death-scene, comes a moment too late. Juliet wakes from her trance a moment too late. Theirs are the only delays in this drama of fever, in which everybody hurries so that he stumbles. Their delays are atoned for an instant later, his, by his too great haste to be gone, she by her thirst for death. The men of the watch come too late to save her. The parents learn too late that they have been blind. They have to clasp hands over dead bodies, that have missed of life through their hurry to seize it.
The play tells the story of a feud greater than that of the Verona houses. There is always feud where there is not understanding. There is eternal feud between those two camps of misunderstanding, age and youth. This play, written by a young man, shows the feud from the point of view of youth. The play of King Lear shows it from the point of view of age. This play of youth is as lovely and as feverish as love itself. Youth is bright and beautiful, like the animals. Age is too tired to care for brightness, too cold to care for beauty. The bright, beautiful creatures dash themselves to pieces against the bars of age's forging, against law, custom, duty, and those inventions of cold blood which youth thinks cold and age knows to be wise.
Man cannot quote a minute from some hour of passion when the moon shone and many nightingales were singing. He can hold out some flower that blossomed then, saying, "this scent will tell you." The beauty of this play is of that kind. The lines—
"Come, civil night, Thou sober-suited matron, all in black"—
and the most exquisite, unmatchable lines—
"Death, that hath suck'd the honey of thy breath, Hath had no power yet upon thy beauty: Thou art not conquer'd; beauty's ensign yet Is crimson in thy lips and in thy cheeks, And death's pale flag is not advanced there"—
show with what a tender beauty the great mind feels when touched.
The Nurse gives an animal comedy to some of the scenes. She is a tragical figure. She is the person to whom Juliet has to turn for help at dangerous moments. There are few things sadder than the sight of the fine soul turning to the vulgar soul in moments of need. One of the few things sadder is the sight of wisdom failing to stop tragedy, as it fails here, through hotness of the blood and unhappy chance. Some have felt that the spark, Mercutio, is drawn from Shakespeare's self. Every character in the play is drawn from Shakespeare's self. Shakespeare found Goneril and Juliet in his mind, just as he found Mercutio and Friar Laurence. If he may be identified with any of his characters, it must be with those whose wisdom is like the many-coloured wisdom that gives the plays their unity. He is in calm, wise, gentle people who speak largely, from a vision detached from the world, as Friar Laurence speaks—
"For nought so vile that on the earth doth live But to the earth some special good doth give; Nor aught so good, but, strain'd from that fair use, Revolts from true birth, stumbling on abuse: Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied, And vice sometimes by action dignified."
Published, in the first folio, 1623.
Source of the Plot. Shakespeare's tragedy is founded on a play called The Troublesome Raigne of King John (author not known), which was printed (after stage performance) in 1591. Some people think that Shakespeare wrote The Troublesome Raigne. There are some glimmerings of his mind here and there in it; but not many. Whether he wrote it or not he certainly made free use of it in writing King John. He took from it with a bold hand, whenever he wished to spare himself mechanical labour. His other sources were the historians, Raphael Holinshed, Edward Hall, and Fabian.
The Fable. King John has made himself King of England. Prince Arthur, who claims to be the rightful king (he is the son of King John's elder brother), causes the French King to support his claim. King John declares war against the French King.
After some fighting in France the two kings patch up a peace. Arthur's claim is set aside. King John's niece is to marry the French King's son.
At this point the Pope's legate causes the French King to break off the negotiations. The war begins again. King John captures Prince Arthur, and gives order that secretly he be put to death. England is in a disturbed condition. The French resolve to attempt the conquest of England.
The report that Arthur has been murdered by the King's order sets England in turmoil. The French land in Kent. The lords find Arthur's dead body outside Northampton castle. They are convinced that King John has caused him to be murdered.
King John finds that he cannot fight longer. He makes his submission to the Pope's legate, trusting that the legate may make the French King come to terms. The French King cannot be moved to peace. John summons up his forces, and gives successful battle to him. The English lords, who have allied themselves to the French King, break off and make their submission to King John. Without their help, the army is too weak. The French invasion comes to nothing. The Pope's legate makes peace. King John dies of poison given to him by a monk.
Like the best Shakespearean tragedies, King John is an intellectual form in which a number of people with obsessions illustrate the idea of treachery. The illustrations are very various. Perhaps the most interesting of them are those subtle ones that illustrate treachery to type, or want of conformity to a standard imagined or established.
In the historical plays, Shakespeare's mind broods on the idea that our tragical kings failed because they did not conform to a type lower than themselves. Henry V conforms to type. He has the qualities that impress the bourgeoisie. He is a success. Henry VI does not conform to type. He has the qualities of the Christian mystic. He is stabbed in the Tower. Edward IV conforms to type. He has the qualities that impress the rabble. He is a success. Richard II does not conform to type. He is a man of ideas. He is done to death at Pomfret. King John does not conform to type. His intellect is bigger than his capacity for affairs. He is poisoned by a monk at Swinstead.
King John presents that most subtle of all the images of treachery, a man who cannot conform to the standard of his own ideas. He fails as a king because his intellect prompts him to attempt what is really beyond the powers of his nature to perform. By his side, with an irony that is seldom praised, Shakespeare places the figure of the Bastard, the man who ought to have been king, the man fitted by nature to rule the English, the man without intellect but with a rough capacity, the man whom we meet again, as a successful king, in the play of Henry V.
King John is placed throughout the play in treacherous relations with life. He is a traitor to his brother's son, to his own ideas, to the English idea, and to his oath of kingship. He has a bigger intellect than any one about him. His brain is full of gusts and flaws that blow him beyond his age, and then let him sink below it. Persistence in any one course of treachery would give him the greatness of all well-defined things. He remains a chaos shooting out occasional fire.
The play opens with a scene that displays some of the human results of treachery. John's mother, Elinor, has been treacherous to one of her sons. John has usurped his brother's right, and, in following his own counsel, has been treacherous to his mother. These acts of treachery have betrayed England into a bloody and unjust war. The picture is turned suddenly. Another of the results of human treachery appears in the person of the Bastard, whose mother confesses that she was seduced by the "long and vehement suit" of Coeur de Lion. The Bastard's half-brother, another domestic traitor, does not scruple to accuse his mother of adultery in the hope that, by doing so, he may obtain the Bastard's heritage.
The same breaking of faith for advantage gives points to the second act, where the French and English Kings turn from their pledged intention to effect a base alliance. They arrange to marry the Dauphin to Elinor's niece, Blanch of Castile. In the third act, before the fury of the constant has died down upon this treachery, the French King adds another falseness. He breaks away from the newly-made alliance at the bidding of the Pope's legate. The newly-married Dauphin treacherously breaks with his wife's party. In the welter of war that follows, the constant, human and beautiful figures come to heartbreak and death. The common people of England begin to betray their genius for obedience by preparing to rise against the man in power.
The fourth act begins with the famous scene in which Hubert fails to blind Prince Arthur. Even in the act of mercy he is treacherous. He breaks faith with King John, to whom he has vowed to kill the Prince. Later in the act, King John, thinking that the murder has been done, breaks faith with Hubert, by driving him from his presence. In the last act, the English nobles, who have been treacherous to John, betray their new master, the French King. King John is a broken man, unable to make head against misfortune. He betrays his great kingly idea, that the Pope shall not rule here, by begging the Legate to make peace. At this point death sets a term to treachery. A monk treacherously poisons John at a moment when his affairs look brighter. The play ends with the Bastard's well-known brag about England—
"Naught shall make us rue If England to itself do rest but true."
This thought is one among many thoughts taken by Shakespeare from the play of The Troublesome Raigne, and taken by the author of that play direct from Holinshed's Chronicles.
Comedy deals with character and accident; tragedy with passionate moods of the soul in conflict with fate. In this play, as in nearly all poetical plays, the characters that are most minutely articulated are those commoner, more earthy characters, perceived by the daily mind, not uplifted, by brooding, into the rare state of passionate intellectual vision. These characters are triumphant creations; but they come from the commoner qualities in Shakespeare's mind. He did them easily, with his daily nature. What he did on his knees, with contest and bloody sweat, are his great things. The great scheme of the play is the great achievement, not the buxom boor who flouts the Duke of Austria, and takes the national view of his mother's dishonour.
Shakespeare, like other sensitive, intelligent men, saw that our distinctive products, the characters that we set most store by, are very strange. That beautiful kindness, high courage, and devoted service should go so often with real animal boorishness and the incapacity to see more than one thing at a time (mistaken for stupidity by stupid people) puzzled him, as it puzzles the un-English mind to-day. A reader feels that in the figure of the Bastard he set down what he found most significant in the common English character. With the exceptions of Sir Toby Belch and Justice Shallow, the Bastard is the most English figure in the plays. He is the Englishman neither at his best nor at his worst, but at his commonest. The Englishman was never so seen before, nor since. An entirely honest, robust, hearty person, contemptuous of the weak, glad to be a king's bastard, making friends with women (his own mother one of them) with a trusty, good-humoured frankness, fond of fighting, extremely able when told what to do, fond of plain measures—the plainer the better, an honest servant, easily impressed by intellect when found in high place on his own side, but utterly incapable of perceiving intellect in a foreigner, fond of those sorts of humour which generally lead to blows, extremely just, very kind when not fighting, fond of the words "fair play," and nobly and exquisitely moved to deep, true poetical feeling by a cruel act done to something helpless and little. The completeness of the portrait is best seen in the suggestion of the man's wisdom in affairs. The Bastard is trying to find out whether Hubert killed Arthur, whose little body lies close beside them. He says that he suspects Hubert "very grievously." Hubert protests. The Bastard tests the protest with one sentence: "Go bear him in thine arms." He utters the commonplace lines—
"I am amaz'd, methinks, and lose my way Among the thorns and dangers of the world"—
while he watches Hubert's face. Hubert stands the test (the emotional test that none but an Englishman would apply), he picks up the body. Instantly the Bastard is touched to a tenderness that lifts Hubert to a spiritual comradeship with him—
"How easy dost thou take all England up."
This tragedy of the death of a child causes nearly all that is nobly poetical in the play.
All the passionately-felt scenes are about Arthur or his mother. Some have thought that Shakespeare wrote the play in 1596, shortly after the death of his little son Hamnet, aged eleven. The supposition accuses Shakespeare of a want of heart, of a want of imagination, or of both wants together. He wrote like every other writer, from his sense of what was fitting in an imagined situation. It was no more necessary for him to delay the writing of Prince Arthur till his son had died than it was for Dickens to wait till he had killed a real Little Dorrit by slow poison.
There is a great change in the manner of the poetical passages. The poetry of the Henry VI plays is mostly in bright, sweetly running groups of rhetorical lines. In King John it is either built up elaborately into an effect of harmony several lines long, or it is put into a single line or couplet.
The rhetoric is compressed—
"That shakes the rotten carcase of old Death,"
"O death, made proud with pure and princely beauty,"
"Old Time the clock-setter, that bald sexton Time."
The finest poetry is intensely compressed—
"I will instruct my sorrows to be proud, For grief is proud,"
"I have heard you say, That we shall see and know our friends in heaven. If that be true, I shall see my boy again,"
"When I shall meet him in the court of heaven I shall not know him."
The characters in this truly noble play daunt the reader with a sense of their creator's power. It is difficult to know intimately any human soul, even with love as a lamp. Shakespeare's mind goes nobly into these souls, bearing his great light. It is very wonderful that the mind who saw man clearest should see him with such exaltation.
King Richard II.
Source of the Plot. The lives of King Richard II and King Henry IV in Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles.
The Fable. I. The Duke of Gloucester, uncle of King Richard, has died under suspicious circumstances at Calais, after an accusation of treachery. Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford, the King's cousin, accuses Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, of treachery to the King and of the murder of the Duke of Gloucester. The King appoints a day on which the two disputants may try their cause by combat. On their arrival at the lists he banishes them both, Bolingbroke for six years, Mowbray for ever. After they have gone to fulfil their sentence, the King plans to subdue the rebels in Ireland. He prays that the death of his uncle, John of Gaunt, the wisest man about him, may occur, so that he may take his money to equip soldiers.
II. Gaunt dies. Richard seizes his estate (lawfully the property of Bolingbroke) and proceeds upon his Irish war. Bolingbroke lands from exile to claim his father's estate and title. Richard's Welsh forces grow weary of waiting for their king. They disband themselves.
III. Bolingbroke's party prospers. Richard is taken and deposed.
IV. Bolingbroke makes himself king.
V. Richard, after sorrowing alone, and inspiring a hopeless attempt at restoration, is killed, desperately fighting, at Pomfret.
Treachery in some form is at the root of all Shakespearean tragedy. In this play it takes many forms, among which two are principal, the treachery of a king to his duty as a king, and the treachery of a subject to his duty as a subject. As usual in Shakespearean tragedy, the play is filled full by the abundant mind of the author with illustrations of his idea. The apricocks at Langley are like King Richard, the sprays of the trees like Bolingbroke, the weeds like the King's friends. Everybody in the play (even the horse in the last act) is in passionate relation to the central idea.
King Richard is of a type very interesting to Shakespeare. He is wilful, complex, passionate, with a beauty almost childish and a love of pleasure that makes him greedy of all gay, light, glittering things. He loves the music that does not trouble with passion and the thought not touched with the world. He loves that kind of false, delicate beauty which is made in societies where life is too easy. There is much that is beautiful in him. He has all the charm of those whom the world calls the worthless. His love is a woman, as beautiful and unreal as himself. He fails because, like other rare things, he is not common. The world cares little for the rare and the interesting. The world calls for the rough and common virtue that guides a plough in a furrow, and sergeantly chaffs by the camp fires. The soul that suffers more than other souls is little regarded here. The tragedy of the sensitive soul, always acute, becomes terrible when that soul is made king here by one of the accidents of life. As a king, Richard neglects his duties with that kind of wilfulness which the world never fails to punish. The wilfulness takes the form of a shutting of the eyes to all that is truly kingly. He rebukes devotion to duty by banishing Bolingbroke, who tries to rid him of a traitor. He rebukes old age and wisdom in the truly great person of old John of Gaunt. Worst, and most unkingly of all, he is incapable of seeing and rewarding the large generosity of mind that makes sacrifices for an idea. Richard, who likes beautiful things, cannot see the beauty of old, rough, dying Gaunt, who condemns his own son to exile rather than betray his idea of justice. Bolingbroke, who cares intensely for nothing but justice (and could not give even that caring a name, if questioned), is deeply and nobly generous to York, who would condemn his own son, and to the Bishop of Carlisle, who would die rather than not speak his mind. Men who sacrifice themselves are a king's only props. Richard allies himself with men who prefer to sacrifice the country.