- The Immortal William Shakespeare [Biography]
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Outlines of English and American Literature
William Shakespeare
by Long, William J.

    "The name of Shakespeare is the greatest in all literature. No man
    ever came near to him in the creative power of the mind; no man
    ever had such strength and such variety of imagination." (Hallam)

    "Shakespeare's mind is the horizon beyond which, at present, we do
    not see." (Emerson)

    "I do not believe that any book or person or event in my life ever
    made so great an impression on me as the plays of Shakespeare. They
    appear to be the work of some heavenly genius." (Goethe)

Shakespeare's name has become a signal for enthusiasm. The tributes quoted above are doubtless extravagant, but they were written by men of mark in three different countries, and they serve to indicate the tremendous impression which Shakespeare has left upon the world. He wrote in his day some thirty-seven plays and a few poems; since then as many hundred volumes have been written in praise of his accomplishment. He died three centuries ago, without caring enough for his own work to print it. At the present time unnumbered critics, historians, scholars, are still explaining the mind and the art displayed in that same neglected work. Most of these eulogists begin or end their volumes with the remark that Shakespeare is so great as to be above praise or criticism. As Taine writes, before plunging into his own analysis, "Lofty words, eulogies are all used in vain; Shakespeare needs not praise but comprehension merely."

Life It is probably because so very little is known about Shakespeare that so many bulky biographies have been written of him. Not a solitary letter of his is known to exist; not a play comes down to us as he wrote it. A few documents written by other men, and sometimes ending in a sprawling signature by Shakespeare, which looks as if made by a hand accustomed to almost any labor except that of the pen,--these are all we have to build upon. One record, in dribbling Latin, relates to the christening of "Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakspere"; a second, unreliable as a village gossip, tells an anecdote of the same person's boyhood; a third refers to Shakespeare as "one of his Majesty's poor players"; a fourth records the burial of the poet's son Hamnet; a fifth speaks of "Willi. Shakspere, gentleman"; a sixth is a bit of wretched doggerel inscribed on the poet's tombstone; a seventh tells us that in 1622, only six years after the poet's death, the public had so little regard for his art that the council of his native Stratford bribed his old company of players to go away from the town without giving a performance.

It is from such dry and doubtful records that we must construct a biography, supplementing the meager facts by liberal use of our imagination.

Early Days

In the beautiful Warwickshire village of Stratford our poet was born, probably in the month of April, in 1564. His mother, Mary Arden, was a farmer's daughter; his father was a butcher and small tradesman, who at one time held the office of high bailiff of the village. There was a small grammar school in Stratford, and Shakespeare may have attended it for a few years. When he was about fourteen years old his father, who was often in lawsuits, was imprisoned for debt, and the boy probably left school and went to work. At eighteen he married Anne Hathaway, a peasant's daughter eight years older than himself; at twenty-three, with his father still in debt and his own family of three children to provide for, Shakespeare took the footpath that led to the world beyond his native village. [Footnote: Such is the prevalent opinion of Shakespeare's early days; but we are dealing here with surmises, not with established facts. There are scholars who allege that Shakespeare's poverty is a myth; that his father was prosperous to the end of his days; that he probably took the full course in Latin and Greek at the Stratford school. Almost everything connected with the poet's youth is still a matter of dispute.]

In London

From Stratford he went to London, from solitude to crowds, from beautiful rural scenes to dirty streets, from natural country people to seekers after the bubble of fame or fortune. Why he went is largely a matter of speculation. That he was looking for work; that he followed a company of actors, as a boy follows a circus; that he was driven out of Stratford after poaching on the game preserves of Sir Thomas Lucy, whom he ridiculed in the plays of Henry VI and Merry Wives,--these and other theories are still debated. The most probable explanation of his departure is that the stage lured him away, as the printing press called the young Franklin from whatever else he undertook; for he seems to have headed straight for the theater, and to have found his place not by chance or calculation but by unerring instinct. England was then, as we have noted, in danger of going stage mad, and Shakespeare appeared to put method into the madness.

Actor and Playwright

Beginning, undoubtedly, as an actor of small parts, he soon learned the tricks of the stage and the humors of his audience. His first dramatic work was to revise old plays, giving them some new twist or setting to please the fickle public. Then he worked with other playwrights, with Lyly and Peele perhaps, and the horrors of his Titus Andronicus are sufficient evidence of his collaboration with Marlowe. Finally he walked alone, having learned his steps, and Romeo and Juliet and Midsummer Nights Dream announced that a great poet and dramatist had suddenly appeared in England.

Period of Gloom

This experimental period of Shakespeare's life in London was apparently a time of health, of joyousness, of enthusiasm which comes with the successful use of one's powers. It was followed by a period of gloom and sorrow, to which something of bitterness was added. What occasioned the change is again a matter of speculation. The first conjecture is that Shakespeare was a man to whom the low ideals of the Elizabethan stage were intolerable, and this opinion is strengthened after reading certain of Shakespeare's sonnets, which reflect a loathing for the theaters and the mannerless crowds that filled them. Another conjectural cause of his gloom was the fate of certain noblemen with whom he was apparently on terms of friendship, to whom he dedicated his poems, and from whom he received substantial gifts of money. Of these powerful friends, the Earl of Essex was beheaded for treason, Pembroke was banished, and Southampton had gone to that grave of so many high hopes, the Tower of London. Shakespeare may have shared the sorrow of these men, as once he had shared their joy, and there are critics who assume that he was personally implicated in the crazy attempt of Essex at rebellion.

Whatever the cause of his grief, Shakespeare shows in his works that he no longer looks on the world with the clear eyes of youth. The great tragedies of this period, Lear, Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello and Csar, all portray man not as a being of purpose and high destiny, but as the sport of chance, the helpless victim who cries out, as in Henry IV, for a sight of the Book of Fate, wherein is shown

                           how chances mock,
      And changes fill the cup of alteration
      With divers liquors! O, if this were seen,
      The happiest youth, viewing his progress through,
      What perils past, what crosses to ensue,
      Would shut the book, and sit him down and die.

Return to Stratford

For such a terrible mood London offered no remedy. For a time Shakespeare seems to have gloried in the city; then he wearied of it, grew disgusted with the stage, and finally, after some twenty-four years (cir. 1587-1611), sold his interest in the theaters, shook the dust of London from his feet, and followed his heart back to Stratford. There he adopted the ways of a country gentleman, and there peace and serenity returned to him. He wrote comparatively little after his retirement; but the few plays of this last period, such as Cymbeline, Winter's Tale and The Tempest, are the mellowest of all his works.

Shakespeare the Man

After a brief period of leisure, Shakespeare died at his prime in 1616, and was buried in the parish church of Stratford. Of his great works, now the admiration of the world, he thought so little that he never collected or printed them. From these works many attempts are made to determine the poet's character, beliefs, philosophy,--a difficult matter, since the works portray many types of character and philosophy equally well. The testimony of a few contemporaries is more to the point, and from these we hear that our poet was "very good company," "of such civil demeanor," "of such happy industry," "of such excellent fancy and brave notions," that he won in a somewhat brutal age the characteristic title of "the gentle Shakespeare."

The Dramas of Shakespeare

In Shakespeare's day playwrights were producing various types of drama: the chronicle play, representing the glories of English history; the domestic drama, portraying homely scenes and common people; the court comedy (called also Lylian comedy, after the dramatist who developed it), abounding in wit and repartee for the delight of the upper classes; the melodrama, made up of sensational elements thrown together without much plot; the tragedy of blood, centering in one character who struggles amidst woes and horrors; romantic comedy and romantic tragedy, in which men and women were more or less idealized, and in which the elements of love, poetry, romance, youthful imagination and enthusiasm predominated.

It is interesting to note that Shakespeare essayed all these types--the chronicle play in Henry IV, the domestic drama in Merry Wives, the court comedy in Loves Labor's Lost, the melodrama in Richard III, the tragedy of blood in King Lear, romantic tragedy in Romeo and Juliet, romantic comedy in As You Like It--and that in each he showed such a mastery as to raise him far above all his contemporaries.

Early Dramas

In his experimental period of work (cir. 1590-1595) Shakespeare began by revising old plays in conjunction with other actors. Henry VI is supposed to be an example of such tinkering work. The first part of this play (performed by Shakespeare's company in 1592) was in all probability an older work made over by Shakespeare and some unknown dramatist. From the fact that Joan of Arc appears in the play in two entirely different characters, and is even made to do battle at Rouen several years after her death, it is almost certain that Henry VI in its present form was composed at different times and by different authors.

Love's Labor's Lost is an example of the poet's first independent work. In this play such characters as Holofernes the schoolmaster, Costard the clown and Adriano the fantastic Spaniard are all plainly of the "stock" variety; various rimes and meters are used experimentally; blank verse is not mastered; and some of the songs, such as "On a Day," are more or less artificial. Other plays of this early experimental period are Two Gentlemen of Verona and Richard III, the latter of which shows the influence and, possibly, the collaboration of Marlowe.

Second Period

In the second period (cir. 1595-1600) Shakespeare constructed his plots with better skill, showed a greater mastery of blank verse, created some original characters, and especially did he give free rein to his romantic imagination. All doubt and experiment vanished in the confident enthusiasm of this period, as if Shakespeare felt within himself the coming of the sunrise in Romeo and Juliet:

  Night's candles are burnt out, and jocund day
  Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops.

Though some of his later plays are more carefully finished, in none of them are we so completely under the sway of poetry and romance as in these early works, written when Shakespeare first felt the thrill of mastery in his art.

In Midsummer Nights Dream, for example, the practical affairs of life seem to smother its poetic dreams; but note how the dream abides with us after the play is over. The spell of the enchanted forest is broken when the crowd invades its solitude; the witchery of moonlight fades into the light of common day; and then comes Theseus with his dogs to drive not the foxes but the fairies out of the landscape. As Chesterton points out, this masterful man, who has seen no fairies, proceeds to arrange matters in a practical way, with a wedding, a feast and a pantomime, as if these were the chief things of life. So, he thinks, the drama is ended; but after he and his noisy followers have departed to slumber, lo! enter once more Puck, Oberon, Titania and the whole train of fairies, to repeople the ancient world and dance to the music of Mendelssohn:

  Hand in hand, with fairy grace,
  While we sing, and bless this place.

So in The Merchant of Venice with its tragic figure of Shylock, who is hurried off the stage to make place for a final scene of love, moonlight and music; so in every other play of this period, the poetic dream of life triumphs over its practical realities.

Third Period

During the third period, of maturity of power (cir. 1600-1610), Shakespeare was overshadowed by some personal grief or disappointment. He wrote his "farewell to mirth" in Twelfth Night, and seems to have reflected his own perturbed state in the lines which he attributes to Achilles in Troilus and Cressida:

  My mind is troubled, like a fountain stirr'd,
  And I myself see not the bottom of it.

His great tragedies belong to this period, tragedies which reveal increased dramatic power in Shakespeare, but also his loss of hope, his horrible conviction that man is not a free being but a puppet blown about by every wind of fate or circumstance. In Hamlet great purposes wait upon a feeble will, and the strongest purpose may be either wrecked or consummated by a trifle. The whole conception of humanity in this play suggests a clock, of which, if but one small wheel is touched, all the rest are thrown into confusion. In Macbeth a man of courage and vaulting ambition turns coward or traitor at the appearance of a ghost, at the gibber of witches, at the whisper of conscience, at the taunts of his wife. In King Lear a monarch of high disposition drags himself and others down to destruction, not at the stern command of fate, but at the mere suggestion of foolishness. In Othello love, faith, duty, the fidelity of a brave man, the loyalty of a pure woman,--all are blasted, wrecked, dishonored by a mere breath of suspicion blown by a villain.

Last Dramas

In his final period, of leisurely experiment (cir. 1610-1616), Shakespeare seems to have recovered in Stratford the cheerfulness that he had lost in London. He did little work during this period, but that little is of rare charm and sweetness. He no longer portrayed human life as a comedy of errors or a tragedy of weakness but as a glowing romance, as if the mellow autumn of his own life had tinged all the world with its own golden hues. With the exception of As You Like It (written in the second period), in which brotherhood is pictured as the end of life, and love as its unfailing guide, it is doubtful if any of the earlier plays leaves such a wholesome impression as The Winter's Tale or The Tempest, which were probably the last of the poet's works.

Following is a list of Shakespeare's thirty-four plays (or thirty-seven, counting the different parts of Henry IV and Henry VI) arranged according to the periods in which they were probably written. The dates are approximate, not exact, and the chronological order is open to question:

FIRST PERIOD, EARLY EXPERIMENT (1590-1595). Titus Andronicus, Henry VI, Love's Labor's Lost, Comedy of Errors, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Richard III, Richard II, King John.

SECOND PERIOD, DEVELOPMENT (1595-1600). Romeo and Juliet, Midsummer Night's Dream, Merchant of Venice, Henry IV, Henry V, Merry Wives of Windsor, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It.

THIRD PERIOD, MATURITY AND TROUBLE (1600-1610). Twelfth Night, Taming of the Shrew, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida, All's Well that Ends Well, Measure for Measure, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, Timon of Athens.

FOURTH PERIOD, LATER EXPERIMENT (1610-1616). Coriolanus, Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, The Tempest, Henry VIII (left unfinished, completed probably by Fletcher).

Tragedy and Comedy

The most convenient arrangement of these plays appears in the First Folio (1623) [Footnote: This was the first edition of Shakespeare's plays. It was prepared seven years after the poet's death by two of his fellow actors, Heminge and Condell. It contained all the plays now attributed to Shakespeare with the exception of Pericles.] where they are grouped in three classes called tragedies, comedies and historical plays. The tragedy is a drama in which the characters are the victims of unhappy passions, or are involved in desperate circumstances. The style is grave and dignified, the movement stately; the ending is disastrous to individuals, but illustrates the triumph of a moral principle. These rules of true tragedy are repeatedly set aside by Shakespeare, who introduces elements of buffoonery, and who contrives an ending that may stand for the triumph of a principle but that is quite likely to be the result of accident or madness. His best tragedies are Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, King Lear and Othello.

Comedy is a type of drama in which the elements of fun and humor predominate. The style is gay; the action abounds in unexpected incidents; the ending brings ridicule or punishment to the villains in the plot, and satisfaction to all worthy characters. Among the best of Shakespeare's comedies, in which he is apt to introduce serious or tragic elements, are As You Like It, Merchant of Venice, Midsummer Night's Dream, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest.

Strictly speaking there are only two dramatic types, all others, such as farce, melodrama, tragi-comedy, lyric drama, or opera, and chronicle play, being modifications of comedy or tragedy. The historical play, to which Elizabethans were devoted, aimed to present great scenes or characters from a past age, and were generally made up of both tragic and comic elements. The best of Shakespeare's historical plays are Julius Csar, Henry IV, Henry V, Richard III and Coriolanus.

What to Read

There is no better way to feel the power of Shakespeare than to read in succession three different types of plays, such as the comedy of As You Like It, the tragedy of Macbeth and the historical play of Julius Csar. Another excellent trio is The Merchant of Venice, Romeo and Juliet and Henry IV; and the reading of these typical plays might well be concluded with The Tempest, which was probably Shakespeare's last word to his Elizabethan audience.

The Quality of Shakespeare

As the thousand details of a Gothic cathedral receive character and meaning from its towering spire, so all the works of Shakespeare are dominated by his imagination. That imagination of his was both sympathetic and creative. It was sympathetic in that it understood without conscious effort all kinds of men, from clowns to kings, and all human emotions that lie between the extremes of joy and sorrow; it was creative in that, from any given emotion or motive, it could form a human character who should be completely governed by that motive. Ambition in Macbeth, pride in Coriolanus, wit in Mercutio, broad humor in Falstaff, indecision in Hamlet, pure fancy in Ariel, brutality in Richard, a passionate love in Juliet, a merry love in Rosalind, an ideal love in Perdita,--such characters reveal Shakespeare's power to create living men and women from a single motive or emotion.

Or take a single play, Othello, and disregarding all minor characters, fix attention on the pure devotion of Desdemona, the jealousy of Othello, the villainy of Iago. The genius that in a single hour can make us understand these contrasting characters as if we had met them in the flesh, and make our hearts ache as we enter into their joy, their anguish, their dishonor, is beyond all ordinary standards of measurement. And Othello must be multiplied many times before we reach the limit of Shakespeare's creative imagination. He is like the genii of the Arabian Nights, who produce new marvels while we wonder at the old.

Such an overpowering imagination must have created wildly, fancifully, had it not been guided by other qualities: by an observation almost as keen as that of Chaucer, and by the saving grace of humor. We need only mention the latter qualities, for if the reader will examine any great play of Shakespeare, he will surely find them in evidence: the observation keeping the characters of the poet's imagination true to the world of men and women, and the humor preventing some scene of terror or despair from overwhelming us by its terrible reality.

His Faults

In view of these and other qualities it has become almost a fashion to speak of the "perfection" of Shakespeare's art; but in truth no word could be more out of place in such a connection. As Ben Jonson wrote in his Timber:

    "I remember the players have often mentioned it as an honor to
    Shakespeare that in his writing, whatever he penned, he never
    blotted out a line. My answer hath been, 'Would he had blotted a

Even in his best work Shakespeare has more faults than any other poet of England. He is in turn careless, extravagant, profuse, tedious, sensational; his wit grows stale or coarse; his patriotism turns to bombast; he mars even such pathetic scenes as the burial of Ophelia by buffoonery and brawling; and all to please a public that was given to bull-baiting.

These certainly are imperfections; yet the astonishing thing is that they pass almost unnoticed in Shakespeare. He reflected his age, the evil and the good of it, just as it appeared to him; and the splendor of his representation is such that even his faults have their proper place, like shadows in a sunlit landscape.

His View of Life

Of Shakespeare's philosophy we may say that it reflected equally well the views of his hearers and of the hundred characters whom he created for their pleasure. Of his personal views it is impossible to say more than this, with truth: that he seems to have been in full sympathy with the older writers whose stories he used as the sources of his drama. [Footnote: The chief sources of Shakespeare's plays are: (1) Older plays, from which he made half of his dramas, such as Richard III, Hamlet, King John. (2) Holinshed's Chronicles, from which he obtained material for his English historical plays. (3) Plutarch's Lives, translated by North, which furnished him material for Caesar, Coriolanus, Antony and Cleopatra. (4) French, Italian and Spanish romances, in translations, from which he obtained the stories of The Merchant of Venice, Othello, Twelfth Night and As You Like It.] Now these stories commonly reflected three things besides the main narrative: a problem, its solution, and the consequent moral or lesson. The problem was a form of evil; its solution depended on goodness in some form; the moral was that goodness triumphs finally and inevitably over evil.

Many such stories were cherished by the Elizabethans, the old tale of "Gammelyn" for example (from which came As You Like It); and just as in our own day popular novels are dramatized, so three centuries ago audiences demanded to see familiar stories in vigorous action. That is why Shakespeare held to the old tales, and pleased his audience, instead of inventing new plots. But however much he changed the characters or the action of the story, he remained always true to the old moral:

  That goodness is the rule of life,
  And its glory and its triumph.

Shakespeare's women are his finest characters, and he often portrays the love of a noble woman as triumphing over the sin or weakness of men. He has little regard for abnormal or degenerate types, such as appear in the later Elizabethan drama; he prefers vigorous men and pure women, precisely as the old story-tellers did; and if Richard or some other villain overruns his stage for an hour, such men are finally overwhelmed by the very evil which they had planned for others. If they drag the innocent down to a common destruction, these pure characters never seem to us to perish; they live forever in our thought as the true emblems of humanity.

Moral Emphasis

It was Charles Lamb who referred to a copy of Shakespeare's plays as "this manly book." The expression is a good one, and epitomizes the judgment of a world which has found that, though Shakespeare introduces evil or vulgar elements into his plays, his emphasis is always upon the right man and the right action. This may seem a trite thing to say in praise of a great genius; but when you reflect that Shakespeare is read throughout the civilized world, the simple fact that the splendor of his poetry is balanced by the rightness of his message becomes significant and impressive. It speaks not only for Shakespeare but for the moral quality of the multitudes who acknowledge his mastery. Wherever his plays are read, on land or sea, in the crowded cities of men or the far silent places of the earth, there the solitary man finds himself face to face with the unchanging ideals of his race, with honor, duty, courtesy, and the moral imperative,

  This above all: to thine own self be true,
  And it must follow, as the night the day,
  Thou canst not then be false to any man.


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