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Shakespeare's dramas—not all of them indeed, but those which were written after he reached what may be called his mastership — are in the highest sense of the term Works of Art, and as such embody to the full the principles set forth in the preceding section. In this general survey of his workmanship, I propose to consider, first, his Dramatic Architecture or Composition.
I have remarked in a previous chapter,* that in Shakespeare's time, and for several ages before, the Drama was a national passion in England, nearly all classes of people being pervaded by it. And yet, strange to say, this passion, notwithstanding the great frequency and variety of dramatic exhibitions, never came to any sound fruitage of Art, till the work fell into Shakespeare's hands. Moreover the tide of patriotic feeling, or the passion of nationality, which had for centuries been growing in strength, intelligence, and manliness, was then at its height, the people of all sorts being possessed with a hearty, honest English enthusiasm and national pride. And this passion was inextricably bound up with traditions of the past and with the ancient currents of the national life. Therewithal this deep, settled reverence for what was then " Old England," while it naturally drew into the mind the treasured riches of many foregoing ages, was at the same time strangely combined with a very bold and daring spirit of progress and improvement. Men seem indeed to have been all the more open to healthy innovation for being thus firmly rooted in the ground of prescription. The public mind received what was new the more freely because it loved the old. So that hope and anticipation walked with the bolder pace, inasmuch as memory and retrospection were still their cherished companions. In a word, men's tenacity of the past gave them the larger and brighter vision of the future. Because
* Page 120 of this volume.
they had no mind to forsake the law of their fathers, or to follow the leading of "sages undevoutly free," therefore they were able to legislate the better for their children, and felt the less of danger in true freedom of thought.
It was natural, perhaps inevitable, that those two passions thus coexisting should somehow work together, and at least endeavour to produce a joint result. And so it was in fact. Historical plays, or things purporting to be such, were highly popular: the public taste evidently favoured, not to say demanded them; and some of Shakespeare's earliest essays were undoubtedly in that line. There are many clear evidences to this point. For instance, Thomas Nash, in his Pierce Penniless, 1592, speaks of certain plays "wherein our forefathers' valiant acts, that have been long buried in rusty brass and worm-eaten books, are revived, and they themselves raised from the grave of oblivion, and brought to plead their aged honours in open presence." And again: "How would it have joyed brave Talbot, the terror of the French, to think that, after he had lain two hundred years in the tomb, he should triumph again on the stage; and have his bones new-embalmed with the tears of ten thousand spectators at least, — at several times, — who, in the tragedian that represents his person, behold him freshbleeding!" From these passages it is clear that historical plays on English subjects were strong in the public interest and patronage. And I have no doubt that the second passage quoted refers to Shakespeare's First Part of King Henry the Sixth. And it might well be that the popular mind should take special delight in entertainments where, to the common interest of dramatic exhibitions was added the further charm of national feeling and recollection, and where a large patriotism, "looking before and after," would find itself at home.
The Historical Drama, then, grew up simultaneously with Comedy and Tragedy, and established itself as a coordinate branch of the Gothic Drama in England. Now this circumstance could not be without great influence in determining the whole scope and character of the English Drama in all its varieties. The natural effect was to make them all more or less historical in method and grain. For the process generated, and could not fail to generate, corresponding modes and habits of thought in dramatic composition; and these would needs go with the writers into whatever branch of the Drama they might take in hand. Because modes and habits of thought are not things that men can put off and on for different subjects and occasions. What they learn to practise in one field of labour transfers itself with them, whether they will or no, to other fields. Their way of viewing things, nay, their very faculties of vision, catch the temper and drift of what they work in; which drift and temper cleave to them in spite of themselves, and unconsciously shape all their movements of thought; so that, change their matter as they may, their mind still keeps the same. Accordingly, even when Shakespeare does not deal specifically with the persons and events of history; when he fetches his incidents and characters from the realms of imagination; still his workmanship is historical in its spirit and method; proceeding according to the laws, even while departing from the matter, of history; so that we have pure creations formed upon the principles, and in the order and manner, of historical dramas.
The practical consequences of all this were both manifold and strongly marked. The Drama thus cut itself loose and swung clean away from the narrow circle of myths and legends, where the ancients had fixed it, and ranged at large in all the freedom and variety of historical representation. It took on all the compass, amplitude, and expansiveness of the Homeric Epos. The stereotyped sameness and confinement of the Greek stage were necessarily discarded, and the utmost breadth of matter and scope, compatible with clearness of survey, became the recognized freehold of Dramatic Art.*
* At this time the Drama was recognized throughout Europe as the poetic form most suitable to modern times and races. As it occupied the place of the
So that, as I have before observed, the English Drama was, in the largest sense, a national growth, and not the work of any individual. Neither was it a sudden growth, as indeed nothing truly national ever can be: like the English State, it was the slow, gradual, silent production of centuries, — the result of the thoughts of many minds in many ages. The whole platform, and all that relates to the formal construction of the work, were fixed before Shakespeare put his hand to it: what remained for him to do, and what he was supremely gifted for doing, was to rear a grand and beautiful fabric on the basis and out of the materials already prepared. And where I like best to contemplate the Poet is, not in the isolation of those powers which lift him so far above all others, but as having the mind of the nation, with its great past and greater present, to back him up. And it seems to me, his greatness consisted very much in that, as he had the gift, so he surrendered himself to the high task, of reproducing in artistic immortality the beatings of old England's mighty heart. He therefore did not go, nor needed he, to books to learn what others had done: he just sucked in without stint, and to the full measure of his angelic capacity, the wisdom and the poetry that lived on the lips, and in the thoughts, feelings, sentiments, and manners of the people. What he thus sucked in, he
epic poem, and did not merely, like the ancient drama, stand tide by side with it, so, along with the office of replacing it, it inherited also the task of showing itself capable of managing, like the epopee, any matter however extended. The materials presented to it were not common property, like the many wellknown myths of antiquity, handed down in a ready-made poetical form; but they were those rudiments formed in the religious dramas, those Mysteries founded on vast actions, and those historical subjects, which required a whole cycle of pieces for the mastering of the huge matter. The things of the world had become complicated and manifold: the variety of men, their nature, their passions, their situations, their mutually-contending powers, would not submit, in dramatic representation, to be limited to a simple catastrophe: a wider horizon must be drawn; the actions must be represented throughout their course; the springs of action must be more deeply searched. Thus Art was put to the work of setting forth the utmost fulness of matter in a corresponding form, which, however, according to Aristotle's law, must not be extended so far as to preclude an easy survey. — Gervinus.
purged from its drossy mixtures, replenished with fresh vitality, and then gave it back clothed in the grace and strength of his own clear spirit. He told the nation better— O how much better!—than any other could, just what it wanted to hear, — the very things which its heart was swelling with; only it found not elsewhere a tongue to voice them, nor an imagination to body them forth*
Thus the time and the man were just suited to each other; and it was in his direct, fearless, whole-hearted sympathy with the soul of the time that the man both lost himself and found his power: which is doubtless one reason why we see so little of him in what he wrote. So that the
* The times, far from being a hindrance to a great poet, were, indeed, from fortunate local and national conditions, the most propitious that modern times could offer. In a few points they might be prejudicial to Shakespeare's poetry, but on the whole he had cause to bless his happy star. The conflict with scholastic philosophy and religious fanaticism was not indeed over; yet Shakespeare came at a precious moment of mental freedom, after the struggle with Popery, and before that with the Puritans. He could thus in his poetry give to the age the basis of a natural mode of feeling, thought, and life, upon which Art prospers in its purest form. In many respects the age itself was in this favourable to the Poet. It maintained a happy medium between crudeness and a vitiated taste: life was not insipid and colourless, as it is nowadays: men still ventured to appear what they were; there was still poetry in reality. Our German poets, in an age of rouge and powder, of hoops and wigs, of stiff manners, rigid proprieties, narrow society, and cold impulses, had indescribable trouble in struggling out of this dulness and deformity, which they had first to conquer in themselves before they could discern and approve what was better. In Shakespeare's time, nature was still alive: the age was just halting on the threshold of these distorted views of false civilization; and if our Poet had to combat against the first approaches of the disease, he was yet sound and free from it himself. He had the immense advantage of being at one with his age, and not at odds with it When he sought materials for his poetry, he did not need, like our painters, to dive into past worlds, restore lost creeds, worship fallen gods, and imitate foreign works of art: from his national soil he drew the power which makes his poetry unrivalled. The age favoured him from another side also. He appeared at that auspicious period when the Drama had in England already obtained acceptance and love; when the sympathy of the people was most alive; and when, on the other hand, the public were not yet corrupted with oversensibility. He took that in hand which most actively engaged the spirit of the people; and he carried it through progressive steps to a consummation beyond which there was nothing possible but retro gression. — Gervimus.