« PreviousContinue »
BY SIDNEY LEE
OMER and Vergil, Dante and Cervantes, Milton and Goethe, are the only writers known to human history who in universality of recognition challenge comparison with Shakespeare. Obviously in the work of every one of these six masters there are certain qualities to which Shakespeare's writings offer no parallel at all. In Shakespeare's writings we seek in vain for the epic simplicity of Homer, the epic majesty of Vergil, the metaphysical fervour of Dante, the serio-comic narrative of Cervantes, the epic sublimity of Milton, the philosophic subtlety of Goethe. On the other hand, Shakespeare's achievement reveals an opulent mastery of one faculty, the faculty of dramatic expression, of instan
taneous revelation of the springs of human conduct, to which his peers on the heights of Parnassus were for the most part strangers. In many of their peculiar excellences, too, Shakespeare outshone his peers too conspicuously to admit of any questioning of the fact. He can be more spontaneous in description than Homer, more solemn in reflection than Dante, more piercing in satire than Cervantes, more searching in introspect than Goethe. No poet has been endowed with equally ready or equally complete command of language, having the triple virtues of simplicity, sensuousness, and passion. No author has sounded a more vivid or a fuller note of humour and comicality. Intimacy with the griefs and joys that sway humanity is an essential characteristic of all great literature. But no author has come within measurable distance of the fulness and certainty which marked Shakespeare's control of the sources both of merriment and pathos.
Apart from the supremacy of his intuition which governed the processes of his intellect and imagination, the cast of Shakespeare's genius differed in many notable respects from that of the genius of other giants in the world of letters. Its active exercise was not coextensive with the full term of his manhood. His life was neither cut prematurely short, nor was it prolonged to the limit of old age. Born in 1564, he died in 1616, having just completed his fifty-second year.1 Notable precocity
1 The general facts of Shakespeare's life are recorded in the present writer's "Life of Shakespeare.' Detailed accounts of his various works appear in the various introductions which are prefixed in this edition to each of the plays and poems.
cannot with confidence be put to his credit. His first play, "Love's Labour's Lost," may be assigned to the year 1591; his latest completed play, "The Tempest," with such portions as are attributable to him of Henry VIII.," may be assigned to the year 1611. He was of the comparatively mature age of twenty-seven years when his career as dramatic author is positively known to have opened, and he was forty-seven years old when it closed. It is probable that the whole of his dramatic work as we know it was begun and ended within that period of twenty years which formed the midmost period of his adult career.
Unlike many eminent poets, through nearly the whole era of his activity Shakespeare produced great work not spasmodically nor at uncertain intervals, but with the utmost regularity, at the methodical rate of two plays a year. Nor did he exhaust his powers by undue exertion before he died. He always economised his energy. From first to last, from "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" and the "Comedy of Errors" to the "Winter's Tale" and "Tempest," it was his habit to borrow his plots. Though he freely altered and adapted the borrowed stories to suit his sense of artistic fitness, he did not spend labour in inventing his fables; he sought them in such accessible sources as Italian romances, the biographies of Plutarch, or the popular English history of his day - Holinshed's Chronicle. Always carefully husbanding his resources, he ceased to write when his powers were at their ripest. His last five years were spent at leisure and in retirement. A