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we are now able to say, with a fair approach to certainty, in what order the plays were written. Differences of opinion exist, it is true, regarding the place of individual works;
CHANCEL OF HOLY TRINITY CHURCH,
The tablet and bust on the wall are a me-
but four fairly welldefined periods are universally recognized.
Early Plays. In the first period, extending to about 1595 and called by Dowden "In the Workshop," were produced probably four comedies, three histories, and one or two tragedies, which are plainly experimental, imitative. For example, Love's Labour's Lost and Two Gentlemen of Verona show clearly the influence of Lyly, the most successful writer of romantic comedy (see page 50). Richard III and Richard II are modeled upon plays of Marlowe. Romeo and Juliet is certainly indebted for its drainatic
manner to an earlier play on the subject (not extant);
1 These figurative titles are given in Dowden's Shakspere Primer, now somewhat out of date, but still an admirable book for the be
just as for its story it is indebted to an extant novel and poem.
The Great Comedies and Histories. -The second period, "In the World," extends roughly from 1596 to 1601, and includes the great comedies-Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night, As You Like It; and the great histories - Henry IV, in two parts, and Henry V. During these years Shakspere worked in the fields in which he had made most of his experiments, leaving tragedy for the next division of his work. The result was a series of most entertaining poetic comedies, with the first three of Shakspere's wonderful gallery of charming women - Portia, Viola, Rosalind.
The Tragedies. The period from 1601 to about 1608, Dowden's" Out of the Depths," is the period of the tragedies, of which the greatest are known to almost every schoolboy -Julius Cæsar, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth. Only in these years is Shakspere consistently serious; and an effort is usually made to explain the tone of this period by supposed events of the poet's life. Whatever the cause, the plays of this period picture the world's sorrows, and the working of the human soul under the stress of them.
The Romances. In the closing period, which Dowden calls "On the Heights," were written three plays to which the designation "dramatic romances" is generally applied - Cymbeline, Winter's Tale, The Tempest. These plays show the author again experimenting not, as in his first period, to discover whether he could write as well as others, but to create new problems which only a master's hand could solve.
ginner. A recent (1913) small volume embodying the conclusions of Shaksperean scholarship to date, Neilson and Thorndike's The Facts about Shakespeare, is perhaps the best single book for students of all ranks.
Interesting from every viewpoint, from none are they more so than in their additions to Shakspere's collection of heroines Imogen, Perdita, Miranda.
Shakspere's Merits of Minor Interest. Scattered through the plays, from "When daisies pied and violets blue" of Love's Labour's Lost to "Where the bee sucks, there suck I" of The Tempest, are found a number of songs which place Shakspere as high among lyric poets as among dramatic. His blank verse and his prose, aside from their perfect adaptation to use in drama, are not surpassed in the English language. Although there are many improbabilities in the
plays, and some apparent inconsistencies, Shakspere shows a mastery in construction of his plots unequaled by contemporaries or successors.
His Great Achievements: (1) Range of his Characters. Not in any of these aspects, however, is to be found the reason for Shakspere's preeminence in our literature: it is in his portrayal of human nature. Over two hundred definite personalities figure in the plays; and it is hardly too much to say that he has left untouched no type of character or situation. From the foolish servant Launcelot Gobbo to the superlatively subtle villain Iago; from the bold, impulsive Hotspur "He that kills me some six or seven dozen of Scots at a breakfast, washes his hands, and says to his wife:
- to the vacilfrom the modest,
'Fie upon this quiet life! I want work lating, meditative, self-analyzing Hamlet; true, gentle Cordelia to the assertive, unscrupulous Lady Macbeth the range of human emotions shown is as broad as life itself.
(2) Universality of his Characters.
The characters are,
moreover, as in life, seldom perfectly simple and readily understood; there is a mixture of motives and not infrequently a lack of sufficient motive, just as there is in the persons and actions we see every day. Was Lady Macbeth spurred on solely by love of her husband? or did she too have an ambition for distinction? Did Queen Gertrude know of the plot against the elder Hamlet's life? or was she merely an intellectually and morally weak woman who became easy prey to the murderer? Is Antony merely a self-seeking politician? (note his "Mischief, thou art afoot, Take thou what course thou wilt!") or does his espousal of Cæsar's cause against Brutus arise from devotion to the dead and real belief in his cause? Had Iago's diabolical plot against Othello no other motive than desire to avenge a small personal injury?
Parallels to such questions can and always will be found by every man in contemplating the conduct of people coming under his observation. To the universal truth to nature of Shakspere's portraits is due his continued wide appeal. As his friend Ben Jonson said:
"He was not of an age, but for all time."
Chief Dramatists after Shakspere. As the drama was the form of literature most favored by the Elizabethan Age, most writers wrote plays. Of the host of playwrights who came into prominence about 1600-1625, few require extended treatment. John Ford is remembered for his
strength in pathetic scenes, and one of his tragedies, The Broken Heart, is still readable. Thomas Dekker wrote one realistic comedy, The Shoemakers' Holiday, which is still effective on the stage. George Chapman, memorable as translator of Homer, wrote several rather bombastic dramas based on contemporary French history, of which Bussy d'Ambois is the best. John Webster excelled in portraying the terrible, and his Duchess of Malfi, though melodramatic, is a powerful play. More important than any of these are Francis Beaumont (1584-1616) and John Fletcher (1579–1625), each of whom wrote plays, but who are best known for plays they wrote in collaboration. Nearly all of the joint plays were written before Shakspere's retirement from London; but they belong chiefly to the years following Shakspere's greatest period, that is, after the drama had passed its zenith. Of the fifty-two plays attributed to Beaumont and Fletcher the best are The Maid's Tragedy, Philaster, and A King and No King. Virtually none are acceptable to the modern stage or to modern readers because of their low moral tone and the authors' too frequent use of "common-place extravagances and theatrical tricks" (Hazlitt).
BEN JONSON, 1573?-1637
The greatest of all Shakspere's successors in the drama was Ben Jonson, already named as Shakspere's friend. He it was who said that the author of Julius Cæsar and Troilus and Cressida had "small Latin and less Greek;" and the phrase has by many been taken to mean that Shakspere was uneducated. That the words should not be so interpreted becomes clear when we learn that the expression is found in a poem by Ben Jonson; for Ben Jonson was the most scholarly poet and dramatist of the age, and the advocate of the classic drama as model for the English.