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prevailed,—and its resistance, as has been seen, was long and obstinate,-true life which lies in continuity was impossible to dramatic diction. Marlowe still thought that each line should stand by itself, the sense marking itself off coincidently with the termination of the verse; and it was for this reason that he forged his lines with so vehement a vigour of expression. But this could only be a transitional phase of blank verse, and was so even in Marlowe himself. In his management of the metre, Shakspere surpassed his predecessors in freedom; but it was now merely a question of degree; the means themselves had been placed at his disposal by his predecessors. Nor was the free use of prose in comic passages less favourable to the emancipation of the English drama from the trammels of tradition. Lyly who used it in all his plays, although he tortured it according to the laws of his own style, did good service by establishing its right to be heard on the stage. The great masters of comic dialogue, Shakspere and Ben Jonson, knew how to profit by the inheritance.

Shakspere's predecessors

Much more might have been added to these concluding deserving of remarks; but enough has been I hope said to illustrate




the fact which they are intended to help to establish. The Elisabethan drama before Shakspere shares with his earliest works many characteristics, and some it shares with his masterpieces themselves. No promise ever attained to such a consummation; but neither had any genius ever such predecessors. Mere incidental references are insufficient for arriving at a just estimate of any individual writer; nor is it as Shakspere's predecessors only or even chiefly that we should reverence, as they stand on their appropriate pedestals in the House of Fame, the mighty figures of Marlowe and his fellows'.

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not the representa

tive of a particular

WE speak of a Homeric Age, thereby intending to indi- | Shakspere cate very much more than merely the age in which the Homeric poems were produced, or the age to which their narrative and descriptions relate. By the Homeric Age of Greece we mean an entire period in the history of country. and people; Homer is to us the representative and the mirror of this period, as fully and thoroughly as Pericles is of another.


No such tribute has ever been paid by the most enthusiastic of his worshippers to the memory of Shakspere. A sound national instinct has preferred to designate the era of our literary as of our general history, which his name illuminates more brightly than that of any of his contemporaries, by an epithet comprehensive in its very vagueness and opportune by its very inaccuracy. In speaking of the Elisabethan Age, we think of a period of our national life animated by tendencies common to all its noteworthy forms of expression, and thus forming a whole by itself, though not of course cut off from connexion with its predecessors and its successors. Shakspere is not the microcosm of his age,-for this he was in a sense too great, and in another sense imperfectly qualified. On the one hand, a genius such as Shakspere's, be it fearlessly said though for the thousandth time, belongs to no age and to no country exclusively. On the other, the circumstances in which he was placed

as a national

and to which his creative activity readily accommodated itself, were not of a kind to enable him to enter in every important respect into the full current of national progress, or to reach one hand forward into the phase of national life which was to succeed that of his own days. He was neither a Bacon nor a Ralegh, yet he became more to his nation than either. The legacy which he left to that nation was not one of which it could immediately enter into full possession; nor were the generations which succeeded him truly conscious of the wealth bequeathed to them.

And yet, in these latter days at all events, who would deny that Shakspere has become the property of the nation, not less than of the world at large? How many an Englishman has in a more extended sense done what the Hungarian patriot is said to have done literally, and taught himself the English language out of Shakspere's pages! How many a student, excluded by circumstances from experience of the world, has sought and found in Shakspere a richer and more varied knowledge of human life and character than could have been gained by long years of familiarity with Court and Senate, with camp and market-place! How many an imagination, in danger of being dulled and emasculated by the influence of a conventional system of ethical and æsthetical rules, has with the aid of Shakspere ranged far beyond and soared far above them! Him at least a wholly exceptional feeling of national reverence has consecrated against proscription; his name is placed on no Index of prudery or prejudice; he at least is allowed to teach our youth what a glorious. and manysided thing is life, and how the wings of the mind were not meant to be demurely folded, for the drill-sergeant of fashion to examine and approve. Those who have most experience of the ordinary literary studies of Englishmen know how to many of our countrymen Shakspere is, besides the Bible, the only poetic literature worthy of the name which they possess. This national service at all events he has rendered to us; and were another Somerset to burn our libraries, and another Long Parliament to pull down


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our theatres, they could not destroy our poetic literature, because Shakspere at least has struck his roots into the people's hearts.


authors at

the time of

the beginning of Shakspere's career.

Yet this has been the work of centuries; it was the work Uncertainty of the poof Shakspere's genius, not of a Shaksperean age. Before sition of the Elisabethan period, there existed no higher secular literature which was, properly speaking, the possession of the nation. It was unacquainted with what it possessed, and therefore did not possess it. The leading poets were scholars and courtiers, trained on much Latin and a little Greek, or familiarised by travel or study with models. of Italian literature. Chaucer and his successors were forgotten, though a ballad might here and there hand down traditions derived from an unknown source. Surrey and Wyatt and their successors, Sidney and even Spenser himself, with their sonnets and odes and allegories in prose and verse, had neither aimed at nor succeeded in popularising higher poetic literature. The chroniclers with leaden foot were only beginning to follow the chapmen and their dubious wares into the homes of the people. The stage had at last furnished a field for the growth of a literature which was of its nature essentially popular, while it admitted of the loftiest poetic aims. Men of talent, quite recently even men of genius, had begun to awake to so magnificent an opportunity. But the labours of playwright, actor, and manager were still hopelessly mixed up in appearance as well as in reality; and the excitement of the hour alone seemed the object of both authors and audiences. The drama had in the eyes of the age not yet made good its claim to be admitted into the domain of literature1.


When, therefore, Shakspere came up to London as a The choice youth ambitious of trying his fortune, he had before him before him.

the choice of entering the old or the new sphere of literary

1 Of this various illustrations have been already given; a significant one may be found in the fact, noted by Malone, that only 38 (or 39) original plays are extant which were printed in or before 1592. This does not exhaust, but probably approaches, the number of plays which either their authors deemed worthy of printing, or publishers thought likely to ensure success as printed works. See Historical Account of the English Stage, p. 6.


life. If he desired literary fame, in the circles which regarded themselves and were regarded by authors as its dispensers, he would have to seek it by compositions such as those which perhaps he brought with him to London, which at all events were early productions, and were more than equal in merit to most of what accepted poets had produced for the entertainment of lords and ladies and the satisfaction of academical critics. How far their patronage might bring bread as well as honour, was of course a different question. On the other hand there was the stage, supported as a pastime by a section of the same kind of patrons, or relying amidst dangers and difficulties upon its popularity among the lower orders. Here in return for hard toil, for a willingness and an aptitude to meet the tastes of very different classes of supporters, was the prospect of modest gain, and of a doubtful position; here was also the opportunity of displaying, after an inevitable period of apprenticeship, the full vigour of conHe chooses scious genius. Shakspere, without wholly abandoning the intent to please by literary offerings of the other kind, chose the stage. The motives which determined the choice it is impossible to estimate; the result was that he at once this choice. and for ever associated his genius with the tendency which

the stage.

Result of

popularised and nationalised poetic literature.

Opinion of The importance of the writer who had begun his labours Shakspere as a drama- among the rival playwrights gradually made itself felt

tist among his literary contemporaries :

among his contemporaries. It may be assumed that at first, anxious above all to make his way, anxious to be at work, he addressed himself to what lay nearest to his hand; and as a theatrical adapter taught himself the secrets of his craft. His success must have been rapid as well as unprecedented. How far the famous charge brought against him by a popular dramatist, that he was unscrupulous in seizing upon materials belonging to others, rested upon facts, it is simply impossible to determine1.

Greene (1592).

1 I refer of course to Greene's accusation, made in the Groatsworth of Wit (which, to whomsoever it was addressed, appeared after Greene's death in 1592) There is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that, with his tiger's heart wrapt in a player's hide, supposes he is as well

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