William Michael Rossetti William Shakespeare.

The complete works of Shakespeare: With a critical biography online

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into his own play. This group of three plays we name (iii.) " Early History,"
and must add a second title, ** the Marlowe-Shakespeare group," finding in the
Second and Third Parts of Henry VI, Marlowe's presence, and in Richard
III. (almost more dominant than his presence) Marlowe's influence. To this
period belongs the Lucrece.

From an early date Shakespeare seems to have designed a tragedy ; not one
of the bloody school of the pre-Shakespearians, not one like The Jew of
Malta or The Spanish Tragedy, but in which sorrow and beauty should blend
and become one. Romeo and Juliet may have been begun or written in a first
form at the same time as some of the early comedies. I do not think it re-
ceived its final form until about 1596, but fragments of an earlier date remain
in the play. This, if we set aside Titus Andronicus, was Shakespeare's first
tragedy. It is, in its beauty, its passion, and its defects, characteristically a
young man's achievement, the lyrical tragedy of youth, of love, and of death :
it stands by itself, and we name it (iv.) " Early Tragedy."

After the Marlowesque Richard III,, which completes the series of four his-
torical plays concerned with the fortunes of the house of York, Shakespeare
turned to the closely-connected subject of the fortunes of the house of Lan-
caster, and began a new series of historical plays with Richard II. He was
determined now to try his own dramatic methods and manner in history, and
so there is much rhyme in Richard II, But the play is of a more complex
structure than Richard III,, and the characterization is more subtle and more
varied. To the same period belongs King John. The advantage taken of a
humorous element, appearing here in the person of Faulconbridge, gives us a
foretaste of the blending of comedy with history, which was afterwards brought
to perfection in Henry IV, We name this group of two plays (v.) " Middle

• " The tecood and third parte tA Henry Vt. are but recasts of two older plays, the ConUntion^ pub-
lished in 1594. and the True Tragedy, published in 159s" (Fumivall.) The first of these is entiUed

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To about the same date as King John belong^ The Merchant of Venice, It
stands midway between the early and the later comedies, and partakes of the
characteristics of both groups. We name it (vi.) " Middle Comedy."

Having treated history and comedy separately, the next step was to unite
them. Henry /K, Parts L and //., are the comedy of FalstafF as much as
they are the history of the troublesome 4imes of the king. The Merry Wives
of Windsor may have been sketched at an earlier date ; it is not impossible
that it assumed its present form at a later date ; but upon the whole the evi-
dence inclines us to place it here, Shakespeare hastily dashing off the prose
play to comply with a command of the Queen, who desired to see Falstaff in
love. (See p. Ixxii.) The date of The Taming of the Shrew is also uncertain,
some critics plachig it as late as 1602-1603 or later (which seems incredible),
some as early as 1594. In its rough and boisterous mirth it has affinities with
The Merry Wives, and perhaps lies close to it in the chronological order.
Certainty upon this point is fortunately not of great importance, for only a por-
tion of The Taming of the Shrew is by Shakespeare, and that portion, though
full of vigor and high spirits, is as much a farce as a comedy. In the series
of histories Henry V, follows close upon Henry /K, Part II. In it Shake-
speare pictured his ideal king, and bade farewell, in trumpet notes, to English
history. For convenience here, where so little disturbance of the chronological
order is caused, it is well to connect The Merry Wives and The Shrew with
the comedies which follow, and to bring together the second and third parts,
Henry IV,, and Henry K, which group we name (vii.) " Later History."

A series of comedies follows, and as the series was started before the his-
tories had come to an end, so its later plays overlap the subsequent tragedies.
It might indeed be desirable to make the fact prominent, by placing the last
three comedies in a group by themselves, later than Julius Casar and Hamlet,
If, however, the student will bear in mind that this group runs on and over-
laps the tragedies, something will be gained, from a logical point of view, by
keeping the comedies together, and allowing Julius CcBsar and Hamlet to
stand near the great tragedies of later date, with which they may be compared
and contrasted.

(rt) The earliest of these comedies are, then, The Shrew and The Merry
Wives, somewhat rough and boisterous plays, written with high spirit, entirely
free from the presence of pain or sorrow. But such rough humor was not
after Shakespeare's own heart at this time. The Merry Wives was a task im-
posed upon him, which he executed with a hearty energy ; but still it was not
a work of his own choice. The Shrew also was but half his own, for he was
forced to preserve the tone of the farce-like piece upon which he worked. But
in the plays which immediately follow, the true Shakespearian comedy reaches
its utmost beauty and perfection, {p) In Much Ado about Nothing, the high
spirits which had given life to The Shrew and The Merry Wives still play

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their part, in a more excellent way, in the creation of the brilliant pair, Beatrice
and Benedick. Everything grows finer, more harmonious, more sweetly
tempered in the pastoral comedy. As You Like //. But the discontent of a
superficial critic of life, breathing Jhrough the glades of Arden, the melancholy
of Jaques, is like the first touch of autumn wind upon the leaves, which to our
sense may have a pleasant poignancy* yet which foretells the approach of the
sad and barren days. In Twelfth Night this passes away ; and, upon the
whole, if there be any presence ot sadness in these beautiful and happy plays,
it is a musical sadness which is resolved into a fuller harmony of joy. Twelfth
Night brings us to the opening of the seventeenth century, and now Shakespeare
began his great series of tragedies with Julius Casar, Continuing, however,
to trace the comedies, we next come to three which present a striking contrast
to those which have just been named, (c) A IPs Well that Ends Well closes
happily, as the title implies, but it is not a bright and sunny play ; it is earnest,
and serious in parts, and the strong-willed heroine, who feels the earnestness
of life and love, though she is noble, has not the romantic charm of a Viola or a
Rosalind. In Measure for Measure a dark and evil world is pictured, and
out of this emerge the strength and purity of Isabella, one of Shakespeare's
highest conceptions of female character, but, like Helena, deficient in charm.
It is as if Shakespeare at this time were writing comedy when he ought to have
been engaged on tragedy, and creating characters in heroic mould which in
comedy hardly find their fitting places. Deep thoughts on life and death in
Measure for Measure remind us of Hamlet, and the sin, the soul-searching
of Angelo, his abasement and discovery of guilt, we scrutinize with a painful
interest I would place Troilus and Cressida here, and in it we reach a still
greater distance fi'om the spirit of true comedy. It is the comedy of disillusion.
The young enthusiasm of Troilus is miserably disenchanted. Ulysses has
come to accept all the baseness of life as part of the nature of things, and as
material to be turned to account by worldly wisdom. Thersites spews over
everything that we had deemed high and sacred, his foul, yet not all unwarrant-
able, insults. Cressida is a shallow-hearted wanton. Having reached this
point, Shakespeare could not but cease for a time to write comedy.

This series of eight plays we group together, and name them (viii.) " Later
Comedy." But the entire series of eight divides itself into three smaller
groups : the first — two plays of rough and boisterous mirth ; the second —
three comedies almost purely joyous, romantic and refined ; the third — three
comedies, one earnest, another dark and severe, the last, bitter and ironical.

Shakespeare's first tragedy was a lyrical tragedy of youth, of love, and of
death. When, after completing his series of historical plays and his joyous
comedies, Shakespeare again turned to tragic themes, he wrote as a man of
mature powers and as a thinker. In his histories he had been dealing with
the real worldi the world of action. In his two tragedies, Julius Casar and

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Hamlet^ he studies the £iilure in practical af&irs of two men, Brutus and
Hamlet, who are called to the performance of great actions, but who are dis-
qualified, the one for acting wisely, the other for acting energetically. Hamlet
and Brutus fail, yet we honor them ; they ^1 as martyrs or victims to duties
imposed upon them as it were by fate, and which become burdens too heavy
for them to bear. These two tragedies are tragedies of reflection ; Shakespeare
is not yet caught up in the passionate wind of his own imagination. Every-
thing is thought out and wrought out deliberately in these two plays. We
name this group (ix.) " Middle Tragedy."

The tragedies of passion follow. Error and misfortune, or, at worst, weak-
ness or indiscretion, had ruined the lives of Brutus and Hamlet They had
not wronged their own souls by crime. But now passion and crime form the
subjects of tragedy, instead of error or the cruelty of fate. The bonds of life
are broken : in Othello^ the bonds which unite husband and wife ; in Lear^ the
bonds which unite parent and child ; in Macbeth^ the bonds of kinship and of
the loyalty of the subject ; Antony, through voluptuous self-indulgence, dis-
solves the bonds which bind him to his country, and ceases to be a Roman ;
Coriolanus, through passionate haughtiness, also turns away from Rome, and
even tries to crush the loyalties and affections which make him man — tries to
lift himself into a proud isolation ; lastly, Timon actually severs himself, not
from his country merely, but from humanity itself. He is " misanthropos, and
hates mankind." But he is not formed for misanthropy, and is slain by his
unnatural hatred. This group of plays we name (x.) " Later Tragedy."

The transition from these to Shakespeare's last plays is most remarkable.
From the tragic passion which reached its climax in Timon of Athens^ we
suddenly pass to beauty and serenity ; from' the plays concerned with the
violent breaking of human bonds, to a g^oup of plays which are all concerned
with the knitting together of human bonds, the reunion of parted kindred, the
forgiveness of enemies, the atonement for wrong — not by death, but by
repentance — the reconciliation of husband with wife, of child with father, of
friend with friend. Pericles is a sketch in which only a part of the subject of
these last plays is clearly conceived ; it is in some respects like a slighter and
earlier Tempest^ in which Lord Cerimon is the Prospero. It also contains
hints afterwards worked out in The Winter's Tale; the reunion of the Prince
of Tyre and his lost Thaisa is a kind of anticipation of the re-discovery by
Leontes of his wife whom he had so long believed to be dead. Posthumus's
jealousy, his perception of his error, his sorrow, and his pardon, may be con-
trasted with the similar series of incidents in The Winter's Tale^ and the ex-
quisitely impulsive and generous Imogen may be set over against the grave,
statue-like Hermione, whose forgiveness follows the long years of suffering,
endured with noble fortitude. Prospero is also wronged ; his enemies are in
his power ; but he has employed his supernatural ministers to lead them to

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penitence rather than to bring them to punishment. He has learned that
"the rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance." In these plays there are
two sets of dramatis persona : the great sufferers, aged and experienced —
Pericles, Prospero, Hermione, afterwards Queen Katherine ; and the young
and beautiful children in the brightness of the morning of life — Miranda,
Perdita, Arviragus, and Guiderius ; and Shakespeare seems to render homage
to both : to the great sufferers for their virtue, and patience, and sorrow ; to
the young men and maidens for their beauty and their joy. There is a roman-
tic element about these plays. In all there is the same romantic incident of
lost children recovered by those to whom they are dear — the daughters of
Pericles and Leontes, the sons of Cymbeline and Alonso. In all there is
a beautiful romantic background of sea or mountain. The dramas have a
grave beauty, a sweet serenity, which seem to render the name " comedies "
inappropriate 5 we may smile tenderly, but we never laugh loudly, as we read
them. Let us, then, name this group, consisting of four plays, (xi.) " Ro-

There only remain the two (xii.) fragments of Henry VIII. and The Two
Noble Kinsmen, The same spirit appears in these as in the Romances. In
each of these plays the work of Shakespeare is united with that of Fletcher.

The following table presents the series of groups in chronological order, as
they have been here made out ; the plays in each group are arranged in what
is supposed to be the true order of succession ; and the date of each play
(ascertained or conjectured) is affixed.


( Touched by Shakespeare,)
Titus Andronicus (1588-90).

1 Henry VI. (1590-91).


Love's Labor's Lost (1590).
Comedy of Errors (1591).
Two Gentlemen of Verona (i 592-93).
Midsummer Night's Dream (1593-94).


2 & 3 Henry VI. (1591-92).
Richard III. {1593).


Romeo and Juliet (? two dates, 1591,


Richard II. (1594).
King John (1595).


Merchant of Venice (1596).


History and Comedy united,
I & 2 Henry IV. (1597-98).
Henry V. (1599).


(a) Rough and boisterous Comedy.
Taming of the Shrew (? 1597).
Merry Wives (? 1598).

ip) Joyousy refined^ romantic.
Much Ado about Nothing (1598).
As You Like It (1599).
Twelfth Night (1600-1601).

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(f) Serious, dark, ironical.
Airs Well (? 1601-1602).
Measure for Measure (1603),
Troilus and Cressida (? 1603 ; revised
1607 ?).


Julius Csesar (1601).
Hamlet (1602).


Othello (1604).

Lear {1605).

Macbeth (1606).

Antony and Cleopatra (1607).

Coriolanus (1608).

Timon (1607-1608).


Pericles (1608).
Cymbeline (1609).
Tempest (1610).
Winter's Tale (1610-11).


Two Noble Kinsmen (161 2).
Henry VIII. (1612-13).


Venus and Adonis (? 1592).
Lucrece (1593-94).
Sonnets (? 1 595-1605).

The student will observe in this arrangement, early, middle, and later
Comedy; early, middle, and later History; and early, middle, and later
Tragedy. Not only is it well to view the entire body of Shakespeare's plays
in the order of their chronological succession, but also to trace in chronological
order the three separate lines of Comedy, History, and Tragedy. The group
named Romances connect themselves, of course, with the Comedies ; but there
is a grave element in them which is connected with the Tragedies which pre-
ceded them. It has been noticed that the Romances have in common the
incidents of reunions, reconciliations, and the recovery of lost children.
Shakespeare, though so remarkable for his power of creating character, is not
distinguished among dramatists by his power of inventing incident. Having
found a situation which interested his imagination, or was successful on the
stage, he introduced it again and again, with variations. Thus, in the Early
Comedies, mistakes of identity, disguises, errors, and bewilderments, in various
forms, recur as a source of merriment and material for adventure. In the
Later Comedies, again, it is quite remarkable how Shakespeare (generally in
the portions of these plays which are due to his own invention) repeats, with
variations, the incident of a trick or fraud practised upon one who is a self-
lover, and its consequences, grave or gay. Thus Falstaff is fatuous enough to
believe that two English matrons are d3ring of love for him, and is made the
victim of their merry tricks. Malvolio is made an ass of by the mischievous
Maria taking advantage of his solemn self-esteem ; Beatrice and Benedick are
cunningly entrapped, through their good-natured vanity, into love for which
they had been already predisposed ; the boastful Parolles is deceived,
flouted, and disgraced by his fellow-soldiers ; and (Shakespeare's mood

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growing earnest, and his thoughts being set upon deep questions of character)
Angelo, the self-deceiver, by the craft of the Duke, is discovered painfully to
the eyes of others and to his own heart

Returning now from our more detailed classification, let us glance once more
at the four periods into which we divided Shakespeare's career of authorship.
The first, which I named In the workshops was the period during which
Shakespeare was learning his trade as a dramatic craftsman. Starting at the
age of twenty-four or twenty-six, he made rapid progress, and cannot but have
been aware of this. The works of Shakespeare's youth — experiments in
various directions — are all marked by the presence of vivacity, cleverness, de-
light in beauty, and a quick enjoyment of existence. If an industrious appren-
tice, he was also a gay and courageous one.

As yet, however, he wrote with small experience of human life ; the early
plays are slight or fanciful, rather than real and massive. But now Shake-
speare's imagination began to lay hold of real life ; he came to understand the
world and the men in it j his plays begin to deal in an original and powerful
way with the matter of history. " The compression of the large and rough
matter of history into dramatic form demanded vigorous exercise of the plastic
energ)bof the imagination ; and the circumstance that he was dealing with
reality and positive facts of the world, must have served to make clear to
Shakespeare that there was sterner stuff of poetry, material more precious —
even for purposes of art — in actual life, than could be found in the conceits,
and prettinesses, and affectations which at times led him astray in his earlier
writings." During this period Shakespeare's work grows strong and robust
It was the time when he was making rapid advance in worldly prosperity, and
accumulating the fortune on which he meant to retire as a country gentleman.
I name the second period therefore In the world.

Before it closed Shakespeare had known sorrow : his son was dead ; his
&ther died probably soon after Shakespeare had written his Twelfth Night;
his friend of the Sonnets had done him wrong. Whatever the cause may have
been, the feet seems certain that the poet now ceased to care for tales of mirth
and love, for the stir and movement of history, for the pomp of war ; he needed
to sound, with his imagination, the depths of the human heart ; to inquire into
the darkest and saddest parts of human life ; to study the great mystery of
evil. The belief in human virtue, indeed, never deserts him : in Lear there is
a Cordelia ; in Macbeth a Banquo ; even Troilus will be the better, not the
worse, for his disenchantment with Cressida; and it is because Timon would fain
love that he is driven to hate. Still, during this period, Shakespeare's genius
left the bright surface of the world, and was at work in the very heart and
centre of things. I have named it Out of the depths.

The tragic gloom and suffering were not, however, to last forever. The
dark cloud lightens and rolls away, and the sky appears purer and tenderer

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than ever. The impression left upon the reader by Shakespeare's last plays is
that, whatever his trials and sorrows and errors may have been, he had come
forth from them wise, large-hearted, calm-souled. He seems to have learned
the secret of life, and while taking his share in it, to be yet disengaged from it ;
he looks down upon life, its joys, its griefs, its errors, with a grave tenderness,
which is almost pity. The spirit of these last plays is that of serenity which
results from fortitude, and the recognition of human frailty ; all of them express
a deep sense of the need of repentance and the duty of forgiveness. And they
all show a delight in youth and the loveliness of youthful joy, such as one feels
who looks on these things without possessing or any longer desiring to possess
them. Shakespeare in this period is most like his own Prospero. In these
" Romances," and in the " Fragments," a supernatur^ element is present ;
man does not strive with circumstance and with his own passions in darkness ;
the gods preside over our human lives and fortunes, they communicate with us
by vision, by oracles, through the elemental powers of nature. Shakespeare's
feith seems to have been that there is something without and around our
human lives, of which we know little, yet which we know to be beneficent and
divine. And it will be felt that the name which I have given to this last
period — Shakespeare having ascended out of the turmoil and tremble of
action, out of the darkness and tragic mystery, the places haunted by terror
and crime, and by love contending with these, to a pure and serene elevation
— it will be felt that the name, On the heights, is neither inappropriate nor

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During Shakespeare's life he was upon the whole the most steadily popular
playwright of his time ; but for awhile the slighter sentiment and the novel
plots of Beaumont and Fletcher may have proved more attractive with the
public Ben Jonson, who survived Shakespeare for many years, gathered
about him a school of younger writers, and though never a great favorite with
the people, was looked up to as a master by those who cared more for vigor-
ous thought and a scholarly style than for human passion and imaginative
truth. The publication, however, of two folio editions of Shakespeare's plays
within nine years of each other, proves the interest still taken in his writings ;
and prefixed to the second folio is an enthusiastic tribute from a young poet,
whose homage was alone worth that of a multitude — the first published verses
of John Milton. We know also that one whom Milton did not honor —
Charles I. — agreed with Milton in honoring Shakespeare, and that his plays
were frequently represented at St. James's and Whitehall

The civil wars and the victory of Puritanism were, of course, unfavorable to
the culture of dramatic poetry. In 1642 the theatres were closed, and they re-
mained so until the latter end of the year 1659. During Charles II.'s reign
there were two currents of feeling with reference to Shakespeare and the
Elizabethan drama ; it was impossible to deny the power and attraction of the
works of the greatest English dramatic poet, but French tastes had begun to
prevail, and much in Shakespeare appeared antiquated, rude, inartistic, almost
barbarous. Davenant, who was not unwilling to be supposed a natural son of
Shakespeare, revived the great tragedies and some of the comedies and his-
tories ; Killigrew'^ new theatre opened with Henry IV. ; the wonderful actor
Betterton appeared as Hamlet in the first play of Shakespeare represented
after the Restoration, and (actresses now taking the female parts) Mrs.
Betterton played with her husband. For her Ophelia hints were received
fit)m Davenant, drawn from his memory of the boy-Ophelias of an earlier time ;
but her most celebrated Shakespearian character was Lady Macbeth. There
is abundant evidence of Shakespeare's popularity after the Restoration ; it
now, however, began to be thoxight needful to reform Shakespeare to suit the
taste of a refined and ingenious public. The attractions of spectacle and
music were added to those of dramatic poetry. Dryden and Davenant altered
The Tempest into Tht Enchanted Island^ with song and show, with new

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Online LibraryWilliam Michael Rossetti William ShakespeareThe complete works of Shakespeare: With a critical biography → online text (page 3 of 224)