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Shakspere's

power of characterisation his

supreme excellence.

Hamlet.

Lost and the Midsummer Night's Dream-the introduction of such intermezzi well accorded with the light texture of the plays; but Shakspere held that the date was 'out of such prolixity' in the midst of actions of deeper interest. Among his later plays Timon of Athens (i. 2) contains a mask, but here as in Henry VIII (i. 4) it is interwoven as a natural incident with the action; the play within the play in Hamlet brings about the climax of the tragedy; the mask in The Tempest (iv. 1) alone must, as it seems to me, be regarded as a deference on the part of the poet to a Court fashion. But in general, it is noteworthy how Shakspere, instead of allowing the fertility of his imagination to run riot in a species of invention which must have been peculiarly seductive to him, abstained as a rule from thus unsettling the balance of the construction of his dramas1.

But it was neither in diction and versification nor in construction that the progress of the English drama owed most to Shakspere. A single word must express its greatest debt to him and his greatest gift as a dramatist. This word is characterisation. It was in the drawing of his characters-which range over almost every type of humanity furnishing a fit subject for the tragic or the comic artthat he surpassed all his predecessors, and has never been approached by any of his competitors in any branch of the drama illustrated by his genius. On this head I will say no more-for it is that on which the greatest of Shakspere's critics have, as befitted them, dwelt with the utmost amplitude and with the intensest sympathy. The characters of Shakspere are the ideals of this aspect of the dramatic art; and his power of characterisation was to him a gift like the gift of Hephaestus to Achilles—it made him not only the foremost among the Danai, but the one Invincible among them.

Thus it is that in the very play to which popular instinct turns as his masterpiece this excellence seems as it were to overflow the materials at the command of the dramatist.

1 Modern managers in return destroy this balance by introducing pageants of all kinds wherever the slightest excuse offers itself.

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In Hamlet alone, the most marvellously true as it is the most marvellously profound instance of Shakspere's power of characterisation, the central character is conceived on a far broader basis than is furnished by the action of the play. I can only offer the results of a repeated study of this tragedy when I say that in reading it or seeing it on the stage it seems impossible not to forget the plot in the character. It is as if Hamlet were pausing, not before the deed which he is in reality hesitating to perform,-which is neither a great nor a difficult one, but before action in general. It is this necessity which proves too heavy for Hamlet to bear; the acorn-to use Goethe's simile-bursts the vessel in which it has been planted; and Hamlet succumbs beneath that fardel which is imposed on all humanity.

But I have resolved to abstain from any attempt to follow Conclusion. the most eminent of Shakspere's critics in their endeavours to interpret the great characters of the works of Shakspere's maturity. Of those among his poetic gifts which were not of their nature essentially dramatic, though in the drama they found the readiest and widest opportunity for constant co-operation with his dramatic gifts themselves, I forbear altogether from speaking, as beyond the scope of this book. The name of Shakspere is synonymous with rapidity, variety, and penetration of analysis, with an infinite receptivity and infinite reproductiveness of humour, with passion streaming as the mountain torrent and pathos deep as the waters of the sea, and with the honeyed sweetness with which the Muses have tipped the tongues of none but their chosen favourites. As, however, I have in mentioning Hamlet referred to the most wondrously powerful of all Shakspere's creations, I may connect with the above suggestion as to his conception of its central character one concluding word. It is as from a study of Hamlet we pass to think once more of its author, of the task of his life, and of its performance, that we seem to recognise what it is to be great. Shakspere too, like all of us, had the Hamlet in him; it was no accident which led him to choose this type as that into which he poured so many of his deepest and innermost

thoughts. He had the Hamlet in him, but he was victorious over the weaker part of his nature. Here is the greatest of our poets, yet one of whom we know nothing but what his works tell us. A tradition of more or less doubtfulness may eke out their information here and there, but they need it not. Of which of our poets, of which of our great men can the same be said? The dearest to us of all our writers, the gentle Shakspere to us almost as truly as to any of his contemporaries, he has not left us anything by which to attach us to his name, except his works. His fellow-dramatists are perpetually introducing themselves to our notice: defending themselves, explaining themselves, apologising for themselves, -but where is there a trace of this in Shakspere? Or, to pass for a moment beyond the range of these pages, how are we to compare such a life with the lives of other poets whom the annals of our literature name as the foremost in subsequent epochs? A Milton heroically combats in his blind old age a world which is far blinder than he, a Dryden and a Pope soil themselves by conforming to the demands of their age upon the service of their genius, a Byron petulantly defies a society of which in his heart he craves the worship. Shakspere passes out of his England almost unheeded; a fair day's wage is all that he has asked and received, and a fair day's work is all that has been acknowledged. But he has done a work greater than this, growing steadily with it, treading the accustomed path, employing the common tools, satisfying the everyday demands. His age offered him the same materials— neither more nor less-which it offered to his fellows; he has not disdained to make use of them; and out of them he has constructed the works which he has left as an inheritance to all times. Is there not in this the serenity -the full and conscious serenity-of the highest kind of genius? Is there not in it the answer to Hamlet's question

'I do not know

Why yet I live to say "The thing's to do,"

Sith have cause, and will, and strength, and means
To do 't'?

CONCLUSION.

On no man has a higher task ever been imposed than on Shakspere; and no man has ever responded to the summons of inspiration more readily, more devotedly, more gloriously than he. In the records of our literature at least we shall meet with no other life so complete, no rival fame so assured, no neighbour monument so lasting as his, of whose life we shall never know aught, whose fame was left the sport of circumstance, whose monument is in his works alone.

513

The literary fame of Ben Jonson.

CHAPTER V.

BEN JONSON.

NONE of our great Elisabethan dramatists has suffered more from Shakspere's fame than BEN JONSON. There is indeed no evidence to prove, while there are clear indications to disprove, the assumption that during his life 'the soul of the greatest of Shakspere's contemporaries among the dramatists was vexed by the superior gifts or the superior success of his friend. Critical by nature, Jonson possessed a character as generous as his mind was robust; and there is a ludicrous incongruity with the nature of the man in the supposition that it was poisoned by a malignant envy and hatred of Shakspere and his fame. The difference between the pair was indeed very great, and reflects itself in nearly everything which is left to us from their hands. But it is no less absurd to look upon Jonson and Shakspere as the heads of opposite schools or tendencies in literature, than to suppose the one to have regarded the other with jealous rivalry in life. Such criticism, though it may assume the aspect of profundity, is really on the level of Endymion Porter's wit, if the epigram be indeed his which asserts that Shakspere was sent from Heaven, and Ben from College. Indeed, with certain exceptions, Ben Jonson has met with a very one-sided justice at the hands of posterity. Too many admirers of Shakspere have had no sympathy to spare for his greatest contemporary in our dramatic literature. And yet Jonson's was so emphatically a literary genius, he was so truly a scholar (as well as much else) by nature, that one would have expected to find him a special favourite of literary

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