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TO THE WORKS OF SHAKESPEARE
THERE is one book in the world of which it might be affirmed and argued, without fear of derision from any but the supreme and crowning fools among the foolishest of mankind, that it would be better for the world to lose all others and keep this one than to lose this and keep all other treasures bequeathed by human genius to all that we can conceive of eternity-to all that we can imagine of immortality. That book is best known, and best described for all of us, simply by the simple English name of its author. The word Shakespeare connotes more than
other man's name that ever was written or spoken upon earth. The bearer of that name was the one supreme creator of men who ever arose among mortals to show them and to leave with them an all but innumerable race of evident and indisputable immortals. No child of man and woman was too high or too low for his perfect apprehension and appreciation. Of good and evil, in all their subtlest and sublimest forms of thought and action and revelation, he knew more than ever it has been given to any other man to know. All this incomparable birthright might conceivably have been bestowed on a man from whom the birthright of song had by equitable compensation been absolutely withheld. But except upon the greatest of lyric and prophetic poets it has never been bestowed in ampler or more entrancing measure.
It cannot, or rather it must not, be denied that no promise of so great a future was given or was suggested by the first two booklets which presented to the world of readers the name of the greatest among all the writers of all time. There are touches of inspiration and streaks of beauty in Venus and Adonis ’: there are fits of power and freaks of poetry in the 'Rape of Lucrece': but good poems they are not : indeed they are hardly above the level of the imitations which followed the fashion set by them, from the emulous hands of such minor though genuine poets as Lodge and Barksted. And when we remember, as we cannot and should not choose but remember, how much of crudity as well as beauty we must needs recognize in 'Two Gentlemen of Verona', 'Love's Labour's Lost', and the first rough sketch of 'Romeo and Juliet', we are compelled to admit that the name of their author, had he died and left behind him no other credentials than these, could hardly have been set by any competent judge beside that of the great young poet who had given to England and immortality the tragedies of 'Doctor Faustus' and * Edward the Second'. In the first of these three plays there is some charm of humour, though the pleasantry is sometimes attenuated to the verge of inanition : in the second, with a good deal of forced and wiredrawn jocularity, there is likewise no lack of genuine fun and glorious poetry : in the third it is first of all to be remembered and lamented that Shakespeare should not or could not have followed the beautifully simple and exquisitely pathetic narrative of Bandello instead of the inferior and adulterated version of the tale to which alone we can suppose him to have had access, and which by its perverse omission of the finest incident in the whole story has deprived us of what must and would have been the tenderest and noblest passage in the loveliest of all tragedies of love. The last words interchanged by the dying Romeo and Juliet, had Shakespeare given them utterance, could not but have been as perfect in beauty as the after attempt of a presumptuous mummer to supply them was ridiculous and revolting in its impertinent incompetence. But the text, long since cleared for ever of Garrick's hideous interpolation, remains liable to the objection of a scarcely less presumptuous pedant that the style or tone of the lovemaking is unlike the natural language of actual lovers : as though the spoken as well as the written expression of feeling did not naturally rather than conventionally vary from age to age. Men of the renascence could no more be expected to talk like men of the middle ages—whether contemporaries of Dante, of Chaucer, or of Villon—than like men of our own age. Each century or so, if we accept the convenient and casual division of manners and of styles by the rough and ready reckoning of successive dates, has its own natural conventions of life and art, from which none can entirely escape but by servile affectation of an obsolete manner or fatuous affectation of an unnatural style. Margites Hallam, who knew so many things so badly, could not see this. The same explanation rather than excuse is no less necessary for a fair and appreciative estimate of Shakespeare's first original and unaided attempt at dramatic chronicle or historic tragedy. Full as it is of flowing and fervent beauty, the effusive and elegiac style of 'King Richard II' is hardly more dramatic or lifelike in many of the scenes than the very earliest manner of Marlowe ; and the treatment of character is less coherent and consistent than the great elder poet's. There are at least six consecutive lines in Greene's grotesque tragedy of ‘Titus Andronicus' which are evidently interpolated by the young Shakespeare ; whose early gift for serious or humorous imitation suffices to explain the rancour of the elder and minor poet. They are in the
exact style of Greene, so glorified and transfigured as to be recognizable only by those who can see the gradations and shades of difference which distinguish a modest original from a superb imitation. It is less obviously easy to decide on the complicated question of Shakespeare's share in the singularly unequal trilogy of ‘King Henry VI'. The comparatively few scenes in the first part which bear the impression of his prentice hand are sometimes in rhyme-crude enough here and there, but above the reach of those rhymesters whose jigging veins' were finally dried up by the superbly contemptuous derision of Marlowe—and sometimes in blank verse not always unworthy of that mighty master : the finest passage in the second is an evident and magnificent interpolation of Shakespeare's now almighty hand in its maturity of omnipotence : the third, a very fine tragic poem in its original form, was slightly and greatly improved by the critical as well as poetical manipulation of Shakespeare. The concluding play of 'King Richard III' is a more harmonious work of still youthful genius, in which there is but one elaborately finished figure among a crowd of powerfully designed sketches. Richard is Shakespeare's first great and perfect creation; admirable as well as terrible in his brilliant and dauntless intelligence, his fiery versatility of humour and of spirit, his unity and variety of character and of gifts. For the first time in all the literature of the world we are confronted with a great as well as a greatly wicked man: even Aeschylus and even Sophocles could show us but an Aegisthus and a Creon : Richard could take up such a couple of criminals in the hollow of his hand.
Six years before the publication of this history, five years before the first appearance of Shakespeare's name in print, a great dramatic poem had been issued from the press without the author's name, which remains and must remain for ever the most inscrutable riddle, the