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and all its weakness; as bringing before us scenes of long past time clothed in hues of reality; or revelling in dreams of surpassing loveliness, with little dainty Ariel,' and Titania and her elfin company,--scenes and beings which no stage could adequately represent, and no actor shadow forth.
In contemplating the unapproached superiority of Shakspere as a dramatist, we must remember that when he came to London, the only direction in which his genius could be profitably employed was as a writer for the stage. In Elizabeth's reign, prose literature, if we except Sir Philip Sidney's quaint but poetical Arcadia, and one or two short tales by Greene and Lodge, was unknown; and poetical literature, if we except songs and sonnets, was, until the appearance of the exquisite 'Faery Queen, almost confined to the dramatic class. Indeed, the eager interest manifested during this period for dramatić poetry, and the great superiority of the plays produced, in a moral, no less than a poetical point of view, to those of later days, is the most remarkable feature in the literary history of those times.
The cause for this may be found in the fact that, of all the ancient amusements and usages so fiercely proscribed at the Reformation, theatrical performances alone were not only permitted, but encouraged. The advantages which the miracle plays had conferred on the people by familiarizing their minds with the great outlines of Scripture history, through a medium which was not then considered as profane, were not lost sight of by the reformers. They readily perceived that the stage, even in that rude form, might become a powerful auxiliary; and in the interludes of Pardonere and the Frere,'God's Promises,' * New Custome,' and that extravagant attempt at the historical drama, Bale's 'Kyng Johan,' we have characteristic specimens of the use they made of it. The theatre thus became a sort of authorized place of entertainment; and the aid of the play writer was sought, not only by amusement-seeking folk, but by grave and learned divines, who heeded little the ribaldry in which the writers indulged, provided shrewd blows were given to fat friars and rich abbeys.'
During the whole reign of Elizabeth, the attachment of the people to theatrical amusements increased; but from the list of subjects which the early records of the drama presents, we think it likely that as many pressed to the theatres to obtain historical knowledge, as for mere pastime. So great was the taste for historical plays during this period, that it would be difficult to find a stirring incident or a conspicuous character, either in ancient or modern history, which had not been taken as a subject. Still, the historical drama, such as we judge it, was with the single exception of Marlowe's Edward the Second,' un
known. These attempts were little more than Plutarch, or Grafton, or Hollingshed copied out dialogue wise,' and interspersed, sometimes with exquisite bursts of true poetry, sometimes with the vilest trash; but all faithfully reflecting the prejudices, religious or national, of the age. Now this state of things actually rendered it more difficult for Shakspere to strike out a different path in dramatic literature than if he had had to form a new one altogether. The public taste approved the existing plays; many of their worst faults (as we learn from contemporary writers), especially their ribaldry, were considered as especial excellencies, and the calm and dignified language which the young dramatist assigned to his heroes, was likely to appear tame indeed to those who had been accustomed to have their ' ears split' with the sound and fury, signifying nothing,' of
Jeronymo,' or “Tamburlaine.' But strong in that genius which never has been surpassed, Shakspere boldly struck out in his own path, and showed the world of what dramatic poetry was capable. And what vivid paintings of the past has he given us, instead of the dim, distorted outlines of his predecessors; what finely executed portraits of those who for centuries had been dust and ashes; what bright scenes in faerieland, and in far-off enchanted islands!
But marvellous as are his powers, most marvellous is his freedom from all prejudice. Although belonging to a most bigoted age, cradle-rocked in religious strifes, seeing men around him zealous to the death for every notion they adopted, and fiercely denouncing their opponents as unworthy of existence, Shakspere from the heights of his great mind calmly looked on, and took no part, save to vindicate the common rights of humanity. Even the Jew,—that object of mysterious horror in that age of dread of supernatural influence, in the hands of Shakspere became almost an object of pity, and when Shylock exclaims ‘hath not the Jew eyes ? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? how finely does he claim for the outcast the common rights of man.
But there was a class, of Christians too, which in his days were objects of hatred and almost of fear-the Puritans; and many a sarcasm was launched at them by his contemporaries, and one of his most successful rivals, Ben Jonson, in his
Alchemist,' held them up to indignation, and in his ‘Bartho• lomew Fair,' to unmitigated scorn. Bút did not Shakspere join in the popular feeling? did not he, whose plays were admired by Elizabeth, and who enjoyed his property in the Globe by express command of James, did not he hold up to ridicule, at least, a sect that had been proscribed by royal authority? No; Shakspere wrote for all time; and therefore no mean attacks upon a persecuted sect were made by him;
and the only allusion to Puritanism which we meet with in all his thirty-seven plays, is by the foolish knight' Sir Andrew Aguecheek, who would as lief be a Brownist as a politician.' • Tell us something of the steward,' says the sack-loving Sir Toby• Maria. " Marry, sir, sometimes he is a kind of Puritan.' Sir Andrew. Oh! if I thought that, I'd beat him like a dog.'
Sir Toby. What ? for being a Puritan? thy exquisite reason, dear knight.'
• Sir Andrew. I have no exquisite reason for't; but reason good enough.'— Twelfth Night, act 2nd, scene 3rd. Can quiet satire go further ?
But there was another religious sect, more bitterly hated than the Puritans, and hated too by them — the papists ; and their superstitions, and real or pretended delinquences, had furnished the stage for three parts of a century with a neverfailing theme of abuse. Did Shakspere here join in the popular feeling ?-he certainly did not withdraw from the subject, for in the first and the last of his historical plays he boldly met it. When his King John appeared, there were already two plays on the subject, that of Bale and one of a later writer; but while both of these exhibit the ecclesiastical power as trampling upon every right, and John forsooth, as ' more sinned
against than sinning,' Shakspere has presented John in his true colors, as cowardly and cruel ; but although the king gives his name to the play, it is the fate of Arthur, as Mr. Knight most correctly says in the work before us,' which is the great * connecting link that binds together all the series of actions in
the King John of Shakspere;' and the general principle brought out is political rather than religious,-political too in a sense which has far closer relation with the views of the patriots of the coming generation, than with the servile notions of the age of kingcraft.
• This England never did, nor never shall,
If England to itself do rest but true.' But how did he treat the last of his historical series, ' Henry 'the Eighth ? that story of the divorce of Queen Katharine and the fall of Wolsey; those events which made direct way for the Reformation ? Even as Shakspere always did-calmly, unprejudicedly; neither glossing over the faults of Wolsey, nor
denying him the sympathy which was due to his sorrows; throughout all that difficult period, so grossly distorted by the wilful perversions of the historians appointed by royal authority, keeping close to his great axiom,
'Nothing extenuate, and nought set down in malice.' How nobly does Wolsey stand forward in the earlier scenes, ambitious and intriguing as he unquestionably is, in contrast with the low-minded nobles of Henry's court ; of what coarse
metal' are Norfolk and Suffolk moulded, in comparison with 'the right triumphant lord high cardinal,' butcher's son though he were; and yet, at the very time when this play was first presented to public notice, hostility against the Catholics was at its height, for the Gunpowder Plot had been discovered but a few years before. But heedless of popular opinion, Shakspere exhibits this great but dangerous man in true colors; and in the last scene of his appearance, in his deep repentance, commends him to our admiration and pity.
• Mark but my fall, and that which ruined me.
Have left me naked to mine enemies !'
Queen Mary; and George Peele, in his Famous Chronicle of • King Edward the First,' apparently to increase the national hostility to Spain, had exhibited one of the most excellent of our queens, the gentle Elinor of Castile, as the most bloodthirsty virago; and the audience at the Red Bull, and at the Fortune, vehemently applauded this perversion of well known history. But did Shakspère do so? No; although the rival of
Queen Katharine was Anne Boleyn, the protectress of the Reformers, and the mother of Elizabeth.
All along, the high-minded, devoted Katharine, proud indeed, as the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, and the aunt of Charles the Fifth might well be, but still keenly alive to the claims of justice, most attached to her brutal husband, kind and considerate even toward her poor wenches,' the serving maids, challenges our homage and our love. Where, save in the · Henry the Eighth’ of Shakspere, shall we find (although grave lawyers and zealous divines had abundantly illustrated the subject) during two long centuries, a just view of the causes that led to the English reformation ?
The historical plays of Shakspere, especially that series which exhibits the contests of the houses of York and Lancaster, have of late years excited much attention. The interest which is now felt in authentic history, and which has prompted the publication of so many contemporary works, has naturally directed inquiry toward these noble dramas, from which so many have derived their most vivid historical impressions; and while many a critic on one side has pointed out Shakspere's gross inaccuracies, many a one on the other, not content with what we should think were a sufficient excuse -that he obtained the best information he was able-has stood forth in vindication of the apocryphal and partizan chronicles of Hollingshed and Hall, as though, because Shakspere referred to them, they must of necessity partake his homage. Now we think justice is best done, both to the genius and moral power of Shakspere, by showing how finely finished a picture he has given, even from the coarse and ill-drawn outline from whence his first idea was borrowed; and how, even while he takes an incorrect view of a character, because an incorrect copy was placed before him, he ever uses it to deepen the moral of the scene.
That Shakspere's mind evidently dwelt with great interest on the wars of the Roses, not merely the circumstance of the connected series of plays which bear the name of Henry the Sixth proves, but the fact, now placed by Mr. Knight, we think, beyond all doubt, that the two older plays called “The Conten'tion of Lancaster and York,' were also early productions of his. This interest was probably awakened by very early associations, for, to quote from Mr. Knight's dissertation on these plays,
* When William Shakspere was about five years of age a grant of arms was made by the College of Heralds to his father. The father was unquestionably engaged in trade of some sort in Stratford-uponAvon; but he lived in an age when the pride of ancestry was not lightly regarded, and when a distinction such as this was of real and