always to that extreme of sympathy where nothing but his exquisite choice of words and images saved him from falling into the silly. For example, .in

Titus Andronicus," with its crude, unmotived horrors, Titus calls Marcus a murderer, and when Marcus replies: “ Alas, my lord, I have but killed a fly," Titus answers :

“ But how, if that fly had a father and mother?

How would he hang his slender gilded wings,
And buzz lamenting doings in the air?
Poor harmless fly!
That with his pretty buzzing melody,
Came here to make us merry! and thou hast killed


Even in his earliest plays in the noontide of lusty youth, when the heat of the blood makes most men cruel, or at least heedless of others' sorrows, Shakespeare was full of sympathy; his gentle soul wept with the stricken deer and suffered through the killing of a fly. Just as Ophelia turned “ thought and affliction, passion, hell itself” to “ favour and to prettiness,” so Shakespeare's genius turned the afflictions and passions of man to pathos and to pity.

[merged small][ocr errors][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small]
[ocr errors]

lyric poet. It was to be expected therefore that when he took up playwriting he would use the play from time to time as an opportunity for a lyric, and in fact this was his constant habit. From the beginning to the end of his career he was as much a lyric poet as a dramatist. His first comedies are feeble and thin in character-drawing and the lyrical sweetness is everywhere predominant. His apprenticeship period may be said to have closed with his first tragedy, “Romeo and Juliet.” I am usually content to follow Mr. Furnival's “ Trial Table of the order of Shakespeare's Plays,”' in which “Richard II.," " Richard III.," and "King John” are all placed later than “Romeo and Juliet,” and yet included in the first period that stretches from 1585 to 1595. But “Romeo and Juliet” seems to me to be far more characteristic of the poet's genius than any of these histories; it is not only a finer work of art than any of them, and therefore of higher promise, but in its lyrical sweetness far more truly representative of Shakespeare's youth than any of the early comedies or historical plays. Whatever their form may be, nearly all Shakespeare's early works are love-songs, “ Venus and Adonis," “Lucrece," “ Love's Labour's Lost," “ The Two Gentlemen of Verona," and he may be said to have ended his apprenticeship with the imperishable tragedy of first love, “Romeo and Juliet."

[ocr errors]


[ocr errors]

In the years from 1585 to 1595 Shakespeare brought the lyric element into something like due subordination and managed to free himself almost completely from his early habit of rhyming. Mr. Swinburne has written of Shakespeare's use of rhymed verse with a fullness of knowledge and sympathy that leaves little to be desired. He compares it aptly to the use of the left hand instead of the right, and doubts cogently whether Shakespeare ever attained such mastery of rhyme as Marlowe in

Hero and Leander." But I like to think that Shakespeare's singing quickly became too sincere in its emotion and too complex in its harmonies to tolerate the definite limits set by rhyme. In any case by 1595 Shakespeare had learned to prefer blank verse to rhyme, at least for play-writing; he thus made the first great step towards a superb knowledge of his instrument.

The period of Shakespeare's maturity defines itself sharply; it stretches from 1595 to 1608 and falls naturally into two parts; the first part includes the trilogy “ Henry IV.” and “ Henry V.” and his golden comedies; the second, from 1600 to 1608, is entirely filled with his great tragedies. The characteristic of this period, so far as regards the instrument, is that Shakespeare has come to understand the proper function of prose. He sees first that it is the only language suited to broad comedy, and goes on to use it in moments of sudden excitement, or when dramatic ✓ truth to character seems to him all important. At his best he uses blank verse when some emotion sings itself to him, and prose as the ordinary language of life, the language of surprise, laughter, strife, and of all the commoner feelings. During these twelve or fourteen years the lyric note is not obtrusive;


it is usually subordinated to character and suited to action.

His third and last period begins with “Pericles” and ends with “ The Tempest”; it is characterized, as we shall see later, by bodily weakness and by a certain contempt for the dramatic fiction. But the knowledge of the instrument once acquired never left Shakespeare. It is true that the lyric note becomes increasingly clear in his late comedies; but prose too is used by him with the same mastery that he showed in his maturity.

។ In the first period Shakespeare was often unable to give his puppets individual Tife; in maturity he was interested in the puppets themselves and used them with considerable artistry; in the third period he had grown a little weary of them and in The Tempest” showed himself inclined, just as Goethe in later life was inclined, to turn his characters into symbols or types.

The place of “Twelfth Night” is as clearly marked in Shakespeare's works as Romeo and Juliet” or “ The Tempest.” It stands on the dividing line between his light, joyous comedies and the great tragedies; it was all done at the topmost height of happy hours, but there are hints in it which we shall have to notice later, which show that when writing it Shakespeare had already looked into the valley of disillusion which he was about to tread. But “ Twelfth Night” is written in the spirit of “ As You Like It” or “Much Ado,” only it is still more personal-ingenuous and less dramatic than ? these; it is, indeed, a lyric of love and the joy of living.

There is no intenser delight to a lover of letters than to find Shakespeare singing, with happy un


concern, of the things he loved best-not the Shakespeare of Hamlet or Macbeth, whose intellect speaks in critical judgements of men and of life, and whose heart we are fain to divine from slight indications; nor Shakespeare the dramatist, who tried now and again to give life to puppets like Coriolanus and Iago, with whom he had little sympathy; but Shakespeare the poet, Shakespeare the lover, Shakespeare whom Ben Jonson called “ the gentle,” Shakespeare the sweet-hearted singer, as he lived and suffered and enjoyed. If I were asked to complete the portrait given to us by Shakespeare of himself in HamletMacbeth with one single passage, I should certainly choose the first words of the Duke in “Twelfth Night." I must transcribe the poem, though it will be in every reader's remembrance; for it contains the completest, the most characteristic, confession of Shakespeare's feelings ever given in a few lines:

[ocr errors]


If music be the food of love, play on;

Give me excess of it, that surfeiting
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
That strain again;—it had a dying fall:
Oh, it came o'er my ear like the sweet south
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odour.-Enough! no more;
'Tis not so sweet now as it was before.”

Every one will notice that Shakespeare as we know him in Romeo is here depicted again with insistence on a few salient traits; here, too, we have the poet of the Sonnets masquerading as a Duke and the protagonist of yet another play. There is still less art used in characterizing this Duke than there is in characterizing Macbeth; Shakespeare merely lets himself go and sings his feelings in the most beauti

« VorigeDoorgaan »