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30 the student of Shakespeare
few plays have so many points of interest “Romeo and Juliet.” In the first place, it marks with singular precision the
connection between the poems T
and the plays and enables us more exactly than any other of his extant dramas to see and understand how Shakespeare's work as
as a playwright and dramatist grew out of his work
as a pure poet. In the second place, we are enabled more fully and with less ambiguity than is the case with anything else he has left us to trace the development of the play itself from immaturity to its final form; with the Quartos of 1597 and 1599 in our hands we are indeed admitted into the poet's workshop. In the third place, the history of its text, even after the revision of 1599, is full of instruction on a subject of deep interest to others than mere technical critics. In the fourth place, the history of the legend on which the plot is founded - its sources, its variants, its modifications, both at the hands of the writer whom Shakespeare appears directly to have followed, and at the hands of Shakespeare himself - is full of curious interest. And lastly, the drama itself, one of the poet's most elaborately finished masterpieces, has, and always must have, whether it be approached critically or uncritically, extraordinary fascination.
One of the most interesting and important branches of Shakespearean inquiry — the process, namely, of the evolution of his genius and art — is unfortunately beset
with an insuperable initial difficulty. We have no means of knowing when he began the composition either of his poems or of his plays. Till the spring of 1592 we have no record of anything produced by him ; probability alone can be our guide. He calls “Venus and Adonis,” published in 1593, “the first heir of my invention”; but it is certain that at and before that date he had been engaged in dramatic composition. If the points of resemblance between “Venus and Adonis" and Lodge's “Scillas Metamorphosis,” and those between “The Rape of Lucrece and Daniel's “Complaint of Rosamund,” were, as seems highly probable, the results of imitations of these poems, the first poem could not have been written before 1589 or the second before 1592, unless, as is not likely, these poems had been circulated in manuscript and to those manuscripts Shakespeare had had access. Everything seems
to indicate that in all his earlier works Shakespeare was careful to follow the fashion, and to follow it with servile fidelity and timid deference, and that, so far as form, tone, colour, and style generally were concerned, he initiated nothing. It is of course conceivable that both “ Venus and Adonis” and “The Rape of Lucrece may have been written, or at least that the first draughts of them may have been written, some time before their supposed models appeared, and that Shakespeare brought them up with him from Stratford as early, perhaps, as 1586 or 1587. But this is pressing conjecture unduly, and is not very likely. The probability is that “ Venus and Adonis” was suggested by Lodge's poem, and written perhaps in the same year as its model appeared. At all events, what seems in the highest degree probable is this, that before Shakespeare left Stratford for London he had commenced poetry, and that what chiefly occupied him was erotic poetry, a specimen of which we have in “ A Lover's Complaint.” What seems certain is, that in his early days in London, before he became absorbed in his work for the stage, he was principally occupied in writing erotic poetry, then immensely in vogue. With that poetry
With that poetry his poems and sonnets show that he was extraordinarily familiar, and to contribute to that poetry was evidently at first his chief ambition. Of all his poems, with a few trifling exceptions, love is the theme. In “ Venus and Adonis he depicted the tyranny of passion in woman, in “The Rape of Lucrece" the tyranny of passion in man. In the sonnets, the majority of which probably belong to this period, love in its nobler and love in its baser aspects is depicted and contrasted. How far these poems, the sonnets particularly, are subjective and indebted to lyrical inspiration, or how far they are merely dramatic creations, pure fictions of impassioned imagination, it is idle to inquire. The balance of probability is in favour of the latter hypothesis, and “Romeo and Juliet” may, I venture to think, be cited as turn
, ing the scale. Shakespeare's genius was essentially dramatic and objective; he belongs to that type of artists whom Aristotle calls eúpveis as distinguished from μανικοί.
In employing passion-suffused narrative poetry and the sonnet for its expression he had forced it into forms at once inappropriate and misleading, because of their association not with what is objective and dramatic, but with what is subjective and lyrical. In the drama, on the other hand, it found its proper mould, its strictly appropriate mode of expression.
With what singular preciseness “ Romeo and Juliet” marks the transition of the work of the poet into the work of the dramatist cannot fail to strike any one. Its theme, like the theme of the poems, is passion, and as in the
poems, that passion is treated rhetorically and lyrically. Its colour has the colour of the poems; it has throughout the same highly ornate and rich diction, a diction much more appropriate for the lyric or the sonnet than for drama, abounding in passages of which the following are typical:
“ This bud of love, by summer's ripening breath,
"O, so light a foot
1./7 Will ne'er wear out the everlasting flint" (II, vi).
“Come, thou day in night;
And this characteristic it has in common both with “Love's Labour's Lost” and with “ The Midsummer Night's Dream,” plays also typical of the same stage in the poet's career. An even nearer approximation to the poems is found in the forms of expressions employed in the drama. To say nothing of the large percentage of rhymed couplets and the frequent introduction of double rhymes, we have three sonnets, — first the prologue, next the dialogue between Romeo and Juliet in the fifth scene of the first act, then the chorus at the end of the first act. Again, the stanza in which “Venus and Adonis” is written is employed three times, — in
Benvolio's opening speech to Romeo (I, ii, 46–51), in Romeo's reply to Benvolio (id., 93–97), and in the lines which conclude the play.
True of course it is that we have no means of ascertaining with certainty whether the poems, either or any of them, preceded “Romeo and Juliet,” or whether “Romeo and Juliet” preceded the poems. But here,