« ZurückWeiter »
II. THE PERIODS IN SHAKESPEARE'S CAREER AS A PLAYWRIGHT
The First Folio edition of Shakespeare's plays was published in 1623, seven years after his death. This volume contained thirty-six plays. The Third Folio, published in · 1663-1664, added seven other plays; but of these seven it is believed that Shakespeare wrote only a portion of the one named Pericles. The thirty-six dramas of the First Folio and Pericles make up the complete plays of Shakespeare, as they are usually reckoned.
In the Folio the dramas are divided into comedies, historical plays, and tragedies. By a comedy is meant a play that ends happily for the hero; and by a tragedy, one that ends fatally. The plays founded upon later English history, beginning with the reign of King John, are called historical plays; but those based upon early legendary history - King Lear, Macbeth, and Cymbeline are not included in this class. Usually one of these historical plays is either a tragedy or a comedy; but some of the dramas of this kind resemble the older "chronicle plays." A chronicle play presented the important events of a reign, rather than a single action. In Shakespeare's Henry VIII our interest is directed to one action after another, in the manner of a chronicle play. These various actions are largely independent of one another, and the drama is not a unified whole. As Mrs. W. D. MacClintock has said of Ivanhoe, "There is a sort of relay race of plot interests."
Shakespeare's comedies belong mostly to the class called "romantic comedies." In a romantic comedy the main action is, on the whole, earnest rather than comic, while the humorous element is largely furnished by subordinate characters, or even by a separate minor story. The Merchant of Venice is what is called a "tragi-comedy."
This means that
it begins in a serious vein and threatens to end fatally, but finally reaches a happy conclusion.
In the mingling of the grave and the sportive elements, the plays of Shakespeare show the utmost variety; in no play is either element entirely wanting. But none of the dramas has a smaller admixture of the humorous than Julius Cæsar.
There are various ways by which we are able to learn, or to conjecture, about when each play was written. Nearly one half of the plays were published in separate quarto editions during the lifetime of the poet; and each quarto bears its date. Also, the stationers, or publishers, had a common register in which each one entered the title of any work which he intended to bring out; he then had the exclusive right to publish the book. This register has come down to us, and many of Shakespeare's plays are here entered under different dates. Again, writers of the period sometimes make references to individual plays, and such a reference sometimes helps us in determining the date of composition. We have already learned that Francis Meres mentioned twelve plays by name in 1598; and we shall see later that a reference by a writer named Weever is the most important piece of evidence in fixing the probable date of Julius Cæsar. Sometimes, too, a play makes use of another book whose date of publication we know. Shakespeare's style changed gradually, and this is still another kind of evidence. The versification of the dramas also showed alteration as he went on writing; for example, in his earliest plays about six lines out of every seven show a natural pause at the end of the line; in his last plays only about three lines out of five have this pause. Again, Shakespeare's dramatic power steadily increased; and his method of managing the action of a play showed distinct changes. For determining the date of Coriolanus, for example, we have no means except purely internal evidence of the kinds
last mentioned. The outcome of all these various forms of testimony taken together is that the order in which the plays were produced can be determined in a general way, but many minor details are still uncertain.
Edward Dowden has divided Shakespeare's career as a writer of plays into four periods, and has suggested for each of these a striking motto. The following table agrees in the main with his fourfold division. The titles of those plays which have the greatest interest and value for younger readers are printed in capitals; and the most important of the remaining plays are put in italics.
The contrast between the second and third of the above periods is very striking. In the following effective words Stopford Brooke connects this change in the tone of Shakespeare's work with some of the known facts in his life, and then characterizes for us the period of the great tragedies:
"Shakespeare had grown wealthy during his second period, famous, and loved by society. He was the friend of the Earls of Southampton and Essex, and of William Herbert, Lord Pembroke. The Queen patronized him; all the best literary society was his own. He had rescued his father from poverty, bought the best house in Stratford and much land, and was a man of wealth and comfort. Suddenly all his life seems to have grown dark. His best friends fell into ruin, Essex perished on the scaffold, Southampton went to the Tower, Pembroke was banished from the court; he may himself, as some have thought, have been concerned in the rising of Essex. Added to this, we may conjecture, from the imaginative pageantry of the Sonnets, that he had unwisely loved, and teen betrayed in his love by a dear friend. Disgust of his profession as an actor and public
and private ill weighed heavily on him, and in darkness of spirit... he passed from comedy to write of the sterner side of the world, to tell the tragedy of mankind.
"His third period. opens with Julius Cæsar [Impossible if the play dates back to 1599. See Section V of this Introduction.]... The darker sins of men, the unpitying fate which slowly gathers round and falls on men, the avenging wrath of conscience, the cruelty and punishment of weakness, the treachery, lust, jealousy, ingratitude, madness of men, the follies of the great and the fickleness of the mob, are all, with a thousand other varying moods and passions, painted, and felt as his own while he painted them, during this stern time" (Primer of English Literature, p. 99).
It is pleasant to know that Shakespeare's last mood was a kindlier one. His closing dramas we have called reconciliation plays. In each of the three that are wholly the work of the dramatist, Cymbeline, The Tempest, The Winter's Tale, there are estrangement and wrong-doing; but after sin and suffering comes peace, the peace of forgiveness. In The Winter's Tale we are back in the country again; we see the festival of the sheep-shearing, and the wild flowers of the Avon meadows. "The wheel is come full circle." To one who reads Shakespeare's plays in the order in which they were written, these closing dramas come like a benediction. The gracious, queenly women who here smile upon us, are, outside of Holy Writ, the choicest embodiments of human nobleness, of moral beauty, in all literature. As we go out from the presence of Miranda, Imogen, Perdita, and Hermione, we feel that we have had a vision of "the crowning race of human-kind,” of "what the world will be when the years have died away."
III. THE STRUCTURE OF A SHAKESPEAREAN PLAY
Shakespeare shows great skill in beginning his plays. Quickly, easily, and interestingly the first persons who come