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A GLANCE TOWARD
The use of great men is to bind the world together. Everybody knows of them, thinks and writes about them, till they become portions of the common mind. An aftercomer cannot tell his own story, or even see life clearly, without reference to those who have controlled the world's thought in the past. And thus the names of great men become a part of the elemental power of language itself. Shakespeare's works touch our life and mind at all points, and he is himself behind most of our critical perceptions. He illumines our atmosphere, and the prismatic lights and shadows that he casts through each generation are moving and transitory things. I have, therefore, not ventured to call the papers by a title more ambitious than a glance toward the light.
It was near the end of the eighteenth century that men began to realize the greatness of Shakespeare, and literary persons were then visited with a new, vague, and strange experience - the discovery that the power of Shakespeare was beyond the reach of criticism. The labors of scholarship over the poet have spread the news, till it has become a commonplace. One finds in the classics, whether of Greek or Roman times, much reverence for critical theory. At Athens and at Rome all parties had a religious belief in the power of criticism. This breaking of shackles, this plunging of the mind into a mystery that shines the more because it defies analysis, is Shakespeare's gift to the world.
His fame as a poet has all but eclipsed his fame as a dramatist; because poetry is a circulating medium which floats into our houses, whereas a drama implies a journey to the playhouse. It will be seen that I began these studies by a paper on the plays as poetry, for it is as poetry that Shakespeare first approaches most of us. Nevertheless, the drama, and the bones of dramatic construction, the management of plot, the arts of speech and rhetoric, are always at play in him. They are the wings of his vehicle. And thus the actual stage becomes the true place to study him. The footlights are our best guide to him; and if he should be lost to the living stage, a great part of his meaning would vanish. It is for this reason that the reader will find in these Notes various discussions of the plays as mere shows, as popular amusements, and much scattered talk about acting, enunciation, and even about children's performances.
THE PLAYS AS POETRY
It is strange to think that the greatest and most enduring things in literature have been written for festivals and holiday amusements, or as the pastimes of leisure. Of this nature were the Greek dramas and the earliest epic poems; of this nature were the mediæval romances, Molière's plays, Calderon's plays whatever is greatest in drama, whatever is most eternal in fiction. To the author and to their first public, Shakespeare's plays were like street concerts, or tales told by a professional traveler. They formed a part of the current fiction of the day, and were supposed to be almost as ephemeral as charades.
Yet the greatness of Shakespeare is bound up with this fleeting and transient purpose of his plays. Their unique quality the sense they give us of something that has never been touched by man, but has blossomed spontaneously out of the spirit — is due, in part, to the light estimate in which the stage was held in Elizabeth's time. This is what set Shakespeare free: he could give rein to his imagination, and his imagination got such mastery over him and burned so brightly, that it obscured the fuel. He had no court and no critics to please, but only the curiosity of an excitable, popular, clamorous audience, for whom he improvised a stage that obeyed no laws except the laws of his own mind and heart. The form and substance of his work is one. We know of Shakespeare nothing but his mind. His function was to enchant men: for an hour or two, as all believed in his own day, and for many centuries, as it proved in the outcome. The charm is everywhere in him in a phrase, in a speech, in a climax, or in the mood that lies behind them all. His wit, humor, and unexpected leaps and plunges of thought are held together by a thread of narrative which is never broken, but which tugs at us and focuses our attention on the action. The thread of the story is often the only dramatic unity to be found in a play of Shakespeare.
Whatever playwrights may claim or scholars propound, the mass of mankind reads for recreation, and it is as an engaging writer of fiction that Shakespeare has made his way. The taste for stories is eternal. In the Homeric Age the tales were recited by a bard; in the Middle Age, by a jongleur in a castle yard. In Elizabeth's day they were sung by ballad-mongers, until the primitive stage caught them up, and a new generation of poets turned the tales of the world into dramas. The passion behind all this popular literature, from Homer to Kipling, is a passion for fiction. The form changes from poetry to prose and back again, the subjects vary with the taste of the times; but the inner meaning and inner value of all these forms of literature is the same at all epochs - it is recreation through fiction.
Shakespeare has held his place in the world through competition with subsequent fiction. His stories are so vividly told, that even people who dislike plays and who do not care for poetry delight in them. As a rule, plays make hard reading, and it bothers us to