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spere among the English is the most excellent in both kinds for the stage,” represented the general feeling of his contemporaries. He was fully master at last of the resources of his art. Merchant of Venice” marks the perfection of his development as a dramatist in the completeness of its stage effect, the ingenuity of its incidents, the ease of its movement, the poetic beauty of its higher passages, the reserve and self-control with which its poetry is used, the conception and development of character, and above all the mastery with which character and event are grouped round the figure of Shylock. But the poet's temper is still young; the “ Merry Wives of Windsor" is a burst of gay laughter; and laughter more tempered, yet full of a sweeter fascination, rings round us in “ As You Like It." But in the melancholy and meditative Jacques of the last drama we feel the touch of a new and graver mood. Youth, 80 full and buoyant in the poet till now, seems to have passed almost suddenly away. Shakspere had nearly reached forty; and in one of his Sonnets, which cannot have been written at a much later time than this, there are indications that he already felt the advance of premature age. The outer world suddenly darkened around him; the brilliant circle of young nobles whose friendship he had shared was broken up by the political storm which burst in the mad struggle of the Earl of Essex for power.
Essex himself fell on the scaffold; his friend and Shakspere's idol, Southampton, passed a prisoner into the Tower; Herbert, Lord Pembroke, the poet's younger patron, was banished from Court. Hard as it is to read the riddle of the Essex rising, we know that to some of the younger and more chivalrous minds of the age it seemed a noble effort to rescue England from intriguers who were gathering round the Queen; and in this effort Shakspere seems to have taken part. The production of his play of “Richard the Second” at the theatre was one of the means adopted by the conspirators to prepare the nation for the revolution they had contemplated ; and the suspension of the players, on the suppression of the revolt, marks the Government's opinion as to the way their sympathies had gone. While friends were thus falling and hopes fading without, the poet's own mind seems to have been going through a phase of bitter suffering and unrest. In spite of the ingenuity of commentators, it is difficult and even impossible to derive any knowledge of Shakspere's inner history from the Sonnets ; “the strange imagery of passion which passes over the magic mirror,” it has been finely said, "has no tangible evidence before or behind it;” but its mere passing is itself an evidence of the restlessness and agony within. The change in the character of his dramas gives a surer indication of his change of mood. “ There seems to have been a period in Shakspere's life,” says Mr. Hallam, “ when his heart was ill at ease, and ill content with the world and his own conscience; the memory of hours misspent, the pang of affection misplaced or unrequited, the experience of man's worser nature which intercourse with unworthy associates by choice or circumstances peculiarly teaches, these as they sank down into the depth of his great mind seem not only to have inspired into it the conception of Lear or Timon, but that of one primary character
- the censurer of mankind. This type is first seen in the philosophic melancholy of Jacques, gazing with an undiminished serenity and with a gayety of fancy, though not of manners, on the follies of the world. It assumes a graver cast in the exiled Duke of the same play, and next one rather more severe in the Duke in Measure for Measure.' In all these, however, it is merely contemplative philosophy. In Hamlet this is mingled with the impulses of a perturbed heart under the pressure of extraordinary circumstances; it shines no longer, as in the former characters, with a steady light, but plays in fitful coruscations amid feigned gayety and extravagance. In Lear it is the flash of sudden inspiration across the incongruous imagery of madness; in Timon it is obscured by the exaggeration of misanthropy.”
The “ obstinate questionings of invisible things” which had given their philosophical cast to the wonderful group of dramas which had at last raised Shakspere to his post among the greatest of the world's poets, still hung round him in the years of quiet retirement which preceded his death. The wealth he had amassed as actor, stage proprietor, and author enabled him to purchase a handsome property at Stratford, the home of his youth, which, if we may trust tradition, he had never failed to visit once a year since he left it to seek his fortune on the London boards. His last dramas, “ Othello,"
" “ The Tempest," “ Cæsar," " Antony,” “ Coriolanus,” were written in the midst of ease and competence, in the home where he lived as a country gentleman with his wife and daughters. His classical plays were the last assertion of an age which was passing away. The spirit of the Renascence was fading before the spirit of the Reformation. Puritanism was hardening and narrowing, while it was invigorating and ennobling, life by its stern morality, its seriousness, its conviction of the omnipotence of God and of the weakness of man. The old daring which had turned England into a people of “ adventurers,” the sense of inexhaustible resources in the very nature of man, the buoyant freshness of youth, the intoxicating sense of beauty and joy, which had created Drake and Sidney and Marlowe, were dying with Shakspere himself. The Bible was superseding Plutarch. The pedantry of euphuism was giving way to the pedantry of Scriptural phrases. The “ obstinate questionings of invisible things” which haunted the finer minds of the Renascence, were being stereotyped into the theological formulas of the Predestinarian. A new political world, healthier, more really national, but less picturesque, less wrapped in the mystery and splendor which poets love, was rising with the new moral world. Rifts which were still little were widening hour by hour, and threatening ruin to the great fabric of Church and State which Elizabeth had built up, and to which the men of the Renascence clung passionately. From all this new world of feeling and action Shakspere stood utterly aloof. Of the popular tendencies of Puritanism and great as were its faults, Puritanism may fairly claim to be the first political system which recognized the grandeur of the people as a whole - Shakspere knew nothing. In his earlier dramas he had reflected the common faith of his age in the grandeur of kingship as the one national centre; in his later plays he represents the aristocratic view of social life which was shared by all the nobler spirits of the Elizabethan time. Coriolanus is the embodiment of a great noble; and the reiterated taunts which he hurls in play after play at the rabble only echo the general temper of the Renascence. Nor were the spiritual sympathies of the poet those of the coming time. While the world was turning more and more to the speculations of theology, man and man's nature remained to the last the one inexhaustible subject of interest with Shakspere, as it had been with his favorite, Montaigne. Caliban was his latest creation. It is impossible to discover whether his faith, if faith there were, was Catholic or Protestant. It is difficult, indeed, to say whether he had any religious belief or not. The religious phrases which are thinly scattered over his works are little more than expressions of a distant and imaginative reverence. And on the deeper grounds of religious faith his silence is significant. He is silent, and the doubt of Hamlet deepens his silence, about the after-world. “ To die," it may be, was to him as to Claudio, "to go we know not where." Often, at any rate, as his " questionings” turn to the riddle of life and death, he leaves it a riddle to the last, without heeding the common theological solutions around him. “We are such stuff as dreams are made of, and our little life is rounded with a sleep."
The contrast between the spirit of the Elizabethan drama and the new temper of the nation became yet stronger when the death of Shakspere left the sovereignty of the English stage to Ben Jonson. Jonson retained it almost to the moment when the drama itself perished in the storm of the Civil War. Webster and Ford, indeed, surpassed him in tragic grandeur, Massinger in facility and grace, Beaumont and Fletcher in poetry and inventiveness; but in the breadth of his dramatic quality, his range over every kind of poetic excellence, Jonson was excelled by Shakspere alone. His life retained to the last the riotous, defiant color of the earlier dramatic world in which he had made his way to fame. The step-son of a bricklayer, then a poor Cambridge scholar, he enlisted as a volunteer in the wars of the Low Countries, killed his man in single combat in sight of both armies, and returned at nineteen to London to throw himself on the stage for bread. At forty-five he was still so vigorous that he made his way to Scotland on foot. Even in old age his “ mountain belley," his scarred face, and massive frame became famous among the men of a younger time, as they gathered at the “ Mermaid ” to listen to his wit, his poetry, his outbursts of spleen and generosity, of delicate fancy, of pedantry, of riotous excess. His entry on the stage was marked by a proud resolve to reform it. Already a fine scholar in early manhood, and disdainful of writers who, like Shakspere, knew “small Latin and less Greek,” Jonson aimed at a return to classic severity, to a severer criticism and taste. He blamed the extravagance which marked the poetry around him, he studied his plots, he gave symmetry and regularity to his sentences and conciseness to his phrase. But creativeness disappears : in his social comedies we are among qualities and types rather than men, among abstractions and not characters. His comedy is no genial reflection of life as it is, but a moral, satirical effort to reform manners. It is only his wonderful grace and real poetic feeling that lighten all this pedantry. He shares the vigor and buoyancy of life which distinguished the school from which he sprang. His stage is thronged with figures. In spite
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of his talk about correctness, his own extravagance is only saved from becoming ridiculous by his amazing force. If he could not create characters, his wealth of striking details gave life to the types which he substituted for them. His poetry, too, is of the highest order; his lyrics of the purest, lightest fancy ; his masques rich with gorgeous pictures; his pastoral, “ The Sad Shepherd," fragment as it is, breathes a delicate tenderness. But, in spite of the beauty and strength which lingered on, the life of our drama was fast ebbing away. The interest of the people was in reality being drawn to newer and graver themes, as the struggle of the Great Rebellion threw its shadow before it, and the efforts of the playwrights to arrest this tendency of the time by fresh excitement only brought about the ruin of the stage. The grossness of the later comedy is incredible. Almost as incredible is the taste of the later tragedians for horrors of incest and blood. The hatred of the Puritans to the stage was not a mere longing to avenge the taunts and insults which the stage had levelled at Puritanism; it was in the main the honest hatred of God-fearing men against the foulest depravity presented in a poetic and attractive form.
THE INDEPENDENCE OF THE UNITED STATES. WHATEVER might be the importance of American Independence in the history of England, it was of unequalled moment in the history of the world. If it crippled for awhile the supremacy of the English Nation, it founded the supremacy of the English Race. From the hour of American Independence the life of the English people has flowed not in one current, but in two; and while the older has shown little sign of lessening, the younger has risen to a greatness which has changed the face of the world. ... What the issues of such a world-wide change may be, not even the wildest dreamer would dare to dream. But one issue is inevitable. In the centuries that lie before us, the primacy of the world will lie with the English people. English institutions, English speech, English thought, will become the main features of the political, the social, and the intellectual life of mankind.