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the theatre, he was watching the revelation of his pregnant message for the first time to the external world. When the author in his weird rôle of Hamlet's murdered father opened his lips for the first time, we might almost imagine that in the words "pity me not, but lend thy serious hearing to what I shall unfold,” he was reflecting the author's personal interest in the proceedings of that memorable afternoon. We can imagine Shakespeare, as he saw the audience responding to his grave appeal, giving with a growing confidence, the subsequent words which he repeated while he moved to the centre of the platform-stage, and turned to face the whole house:
I find thee apt;
As the Ghost vanished and the air rang mysteriously with his piercing words “Remember me,” we would like to imagine the whole intelligence of Elizabethan England responding to that cry as it sprang on its first utterance in the theatre from the great dramatist's own lips. Since that memorable day, at any rate, the whole intelligence of the world has responded to that cry with all Hamlet's ecstasy, and with but a single modification of the phraseology:
1 Performances of plays in Shakespeare's time always took place in the afternoon.
III There is a certain justification, in fact, for the fancy that the plaudites were loud and long, when Shakespeare created the role of the "poor ghost" in the first production of his play of Hamlet in 1602. There is no doubt at all that Shakespeare conspicuously caught the ear of the Elizabethan playgoer at a very early date in his career, and that he held it firmly for life. "These plays," wrote two of his professional associates of the reception of the whole series in the playhouse in his lifetime —“These plays have had their trial already, and stood out all appeals.” Matthew Arnold, apparently quite unconsciously, echoed the precise phrase when seeking to express poetically, the universality of Shakespeare's reputation in our own day.
Others abide our judgment, thou art free, is the first line of Arnold's well-known sonnet, which attests the rank allotted to Shakespeare in the literary hierarchy by the professional critic, nearly two and a half centuries after the dramatist's death. There was no narrower qualification in the apostrophe of Shakespeare by Ben Jonson, a very critical contemporary, as :
Soul of the age, The applause, delight, and wonder of our stage. This play of Hamlet, this play of his “which most kindled English hearts,” received a specially enthusiastic welcome from Elizabethan playgoers. It was acted within its first year of production repeatedly (“divers times”), not merely in London "and elsewhere," but also an unusual distinction
—at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. It was reprinted four times within eight years of its birth.
Thus the charge sometimes brought against the Elizabethan playgoer of failing to recognise Shakespeare's sovereign genius should be reckoned among popular errors. It was not merely the recognition of the critical and highly educated that Shakespeare received in person. It was by the voice of the half-educated populace, whose heart and intellect were for once in the right, that he was acclaimed the greatest interpreter of human nature that literature had known, and, as subsequent experience has proved, was likely to know. There is evidence that throughout his lifetime and for a generation afterwards his plays drew crowds to pit, boxes, and gallery alike. It is true that he was one of a number of popular dramatists, many of whom had rare gifts, and all of whom glowed with a spark of the genuine literary fire. But Shakespeare was the sun in the firmament: when his light shone, the fires of all contemporaries paled in the contemporary playgoer's eye. There is forcible and humorous portrayal of human frailty and eccentricity in plays of Shakespeare's contemporary, Ben Jonson. Ben Jonson was a classical
a scholar, which Shakespeare was not. Jonson was as well versed in Roman history as a college tutor. But when Shakespeare and Ben Jonson both tried their hands at dramatising episodes in Roman history, the Elizabethan public of all degrees of intelligence welcomed Shakespeare's efforts with an enthusiasm which they rigidly withheld from Ben Jonson's. This is how an ordinary playgoer con
SHAKESPEARE AT COURT IN 1594
trasted the reception of Jonson's Roman play of Catiline's Conspiracy with that of Shakespeare's Roman play of Julius Cæsar:
So have I seen when Cæsar would appear,
Shakespeare was the popular favourite. It is rare that the artist who is a hero with the multitude is also a hero with the cultivated few. But Shakespeare's universality of appeal was such as to include among his worshippers from the first the trained and the untrained playgoer of his time.
IV Very early in his career did Shakespeare attract the notice of the cultivated section of Elizabeth's Court, and hardly sufficient notice has been taken by students of the poet's biography of the earliest recognition accorded him by the great queen, herself an inveterate lover of the drama, and an embodiment of the taste of the people in literature. The story is worth retelling. In the middle of December 1594, Queen Elizabeth removed from Whitehall to Greenwich to spend Christmas at that palace of Greenwich in which she was born sixty-one years earlier. And she made the celebration of Christmas of 1594 more memorable than any other in the annals of her reign or in the literary history of the country by summoning Shakespeare to Court. It was less than eight years since the poet had first set foot in the metropolis. His career was little more than opened. But by 1594 Shakespeare had given his countrymen unmistakable indications of the stuff of which he was made. His progress had been more sure than rapid. A young man of twoand-twenty, burdened with a wife and three children, he had left his home in the little country town of Stratford-on-Avon in 1586 to seek his fortune in London. Without friends, without money, he had, like any other stage-struck youth, set his heart on becoming an actor in the metropolis. Fortune favoured him. He sought and won the humble office of call-boy in a London playhouse; but no sooner had his foot touched the lowest rung of the theatrical ladder than his genius taught him that the topmost rung was within his reach. He tried his hand on the revision of an old play, and the manager was not slow to recognise an unmatched gift for dramatic writing.
It was probably not till 1591, when Shakespeare was twenty-seven, that his earliest original play, Love's Labour's Lost, was performed. It showed the hand of a beginner; it abounded in trivial witticisms. But above all, there shone out clearly and unmistakably the dramatic and poetic fire, the humorous outlook on life, the insight into human feeling, which were to inspire Titanic achievements in the future.
Soon after, Shakespeare scaled the tragic heights of Romeo and Juliet, and he was hailed as the prophet of a new world of art. Fashionable London society then, as now, befriended the theatre. Cultivated noblemen offered their patronage to promising writers for the stage, and Shakespeare soon gained the ear of the young Earl of Southampton, one of the most accomplished and handsome of the queen's