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most interesting subject of debate among students of poetry, that ever chance or craft proposed for solution. or conjecture. There is nothing quite so subtly and profoundly impressive, so charged with the sublimest effects of terror and pity, in any of Shakespeare's early plays, as in the tragedy of Arden of Feversham'. There is more in it of the tragic humour and terrible or tender insight which were his alone in the fullness and perfection of their power than will be found in the very greatest work of the very greatest of his followers and disciples and to say this is to say much indeed less cannot and must not be said. And no poet of the time but Shakespeare and Webster has shown so noble an instinct for elevating and purifying the character of women or of men whom the chronicles they followed with close and meticulous fidelity had presented as merely debased and contemptible criminals: while the villain whose abject and savage egotism is the mainspring of the tragic action can hardly seem to any competent reader the creature of any hand then engaged in creation but Shakespeare's. Assuredly there is none other known. to whom it could be plausibly or even possibly assigned. If it be not his, there was a greater than he in his youth at work for the tragic stage, whose very name has perished.
The delightful 'Comedy of Errors' is the very crown and flower of the young Shakespeare's humorous and fanciful work. For the first time he had before him as a model the work of a great comic poet-a man of rare if rough and ready genius. He could not improve, as no other imitator-not even Rotrou and not even Molière could improve, on the invention and construction of Plautus: but he has flavoured the fun with such an exquisite infusion of poetry as no other imitator could afford. And without breaking the bounds of broad comedy so far as to impair the harmony of his
work he has introduced upon the unsentimental scene two figures of young lovers, a fervent youth and a fugitive maid, round which he has thrown a musical gloriole of lyric and elegiac poetry beyond all reach or all aspiration of all other comic poets. Coleridge, his greatest and his all but incomparable commentator, calls this play his only attempt at farce: but surely 'Twelfth Night is as much and Merry Wives of Windsor' much more of a farce than the Comedy of Errors'. And The Taming of the Shrew', adapted and improved from a brilliant and powerful comedy of unknown authorship, is not less farcical in the violence of its horse-play and the complication and evolution of its intrigue.
The tragical history of King John', though in many of its earlier scenes diffuse and rhetorical even to the verge of declamation and verbosity, shows in some points a distinct and decisive advance in general grasp of character and temperance of treatment. Its hero, the noble and chivalrous Bastard, is the first example in Shakespeare's work of a type which found its final and crowning expression in the person of King Henry V : the humorous-heroic. The eponymous reptile is better drawn than his less venomous fellow in futility and ferocity, King Richard II: but the mother and child who fall victims to his currish cruelty are hardly on the whole as lifelike as the maturer and full-grown Shakespeare would have made them. But the last appearance of the maddened mother, who has had noble things to say in some of the previous scenes, is magnificent. The boy is no more comparable with a later boy of Shakespeare's begetting than is his mother with the mother of Coriolanus.
The first tragedy of 'Hamlet', which as obviously belongs to the first period of Shakespeare as any of his other early plays, is as complete and effective from the dramatic no less than the merely theatrical point of view
as the recast and transfiguration of the poem which set it for ever among the highest recorded works of man. From the familiar contemporary mentions and allusions and references which attest the very natural fact of its immediate and perhaps unequalled popularity we cannot but draw the obvious inference and realize the indisputable certainty that Shakespeare never wrote merely for the stage, but always with an eye on the future and studious reader, who would be competent and careful to appreciate what his audience and his fellow-actors could not. The perfect Hamlet was so far beyond their apprehension that the lying rascals who published the first edition of its author's collected plays did not fear to strike out from the already published text the very finest and most important passage in the poem: whence we may infer to what a process of mutilation the plays first issued under their most inauspicious auspices must only too surely have been subjected. But 'Hamlet no thanks to them-' Hamlet' we have in the fullness of the glory with which the afterthought of its creator transfigured and endowed it. The greatest of Shakespeare's tragedies it is not: but it is not unintelligible that it should pass for such in general and traditional estimation. The infinite and imperishable charm of the leading character, in all its mystery and all its actuality, is wider in the universal attraction of its appeal than that of any other among the creatures of the omnipotence of Shakespeare. Others may appeal more profoundly or more keenly to the imagination or the sympathy of particular students: but the reach of Hamlet's influence, the sway of Hamlet's empire, has always been and always will be wider than any of theirs.
As to which among so many matchless and unapproachable masterpieces may be Shakespeare's masterwork in tragedy or in comedy it is impossible for any
critic or any poet, and impossible it would be if even some celestial chance could possibly send us a second Coleridge, to pronounce judgement with the decision of a final authority. But as to which among his historic and patriotic plays or poems is the crowning and consummate masterpiece of the supreme poet there can be no possible question among any imaginable readers. The trilogy of King Henry IV' and 'King Henry V' would suffice to show, not that Shakespeare was the greatest poet, but assuredly that Shakespeare was the greatest dramatist and the greatest humourist of all time. The majestic and impassioned poetry of the graver scenes should not, if it is possible that it should not, be eclipsed or overshadowed in the sight of students young or old by the presence and the rivalry of the greatest comic figure that ever dawned upon the conception of the greatest comic poet ever born. And it is in a great historic and heroic trilogy that this matchless figure is set as in everliving relief by the deathless hand which carved and coloured it. The multitudinous magnificence of variety in creation which makes it difficult if not impossible for any not immodest and irrational criticism to attempt an estimate of this trilogy can be compared with nothing else in poetry or in prose. That equal and perfect justice should have been meted out alike to Hotspur and to Hal is sufficient to prove the flawless equity, the impeccable intelligence, the illimitable sympathy and the infallible apprehension of noble nature and of living truth, which none need seek elsewhere but all may find in Shakespeare. From Bardolph down to Lord Bardolph, from Pistol down to Prince John, the radiance of righteousness distinguishes the judgement and the treatment of character which cast all other men's into the shade. Shakespeare is himself alone he could have taken up Homer in his right hand and Dante in his left.
In the third play of this trilogy he has unconsciously matched himself against a greater than Homer or than Dante. In all poetic or dramatic or patriotic literature there is nothing of its kind comparable with the' Persae' of Aeschylus but Shakespeare's 'King Henry V', there is nothing that can be set against the tragedy which revolves round Agincourt but the tragedy which is based on Salamis. As Shelley so justly saw and so admirably said, the comic humour of Shakespeare supplies the place filled and affords the relief given by lyric poetry in the tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles. And here above all is this the case: and here above all is the harmony of tragedy and comedy most manifest and most perfect. The poetic chivalry of treatment, the fine sympathy and the full goodwill displayed towards that sweet enemy, France', could not have been excelled by Philip Sidney's very self. The shafts of sunbright raillery aimed at the sanguine selfconfidence and joyful self-esteem of the French are no more tipped with poison or edged with malevolence than the kindly and faithful satire, if satire indeed we may call it, levelled at the sturdy assurance and stolid rectitude of the typical English plebeian. How far above all taint of provincial prejudice was the patriotism of the supreme Englishman may be seen by his thumbnail sketches of the stoutly taciturn Scot and the irritably voluble Irishman-good soldiers and good fellows both of them: but the homely Welsh captain is as perfect and as cordial a study as any of all the living figures that serve so gloriously to set off the great eponymous type of the ideal hero, the ideal humourist, and the ideal king.
In the bright and boisterous farce called 'Merry Wives of Windsor' the reappearance of Falstaff and Mrs. Quickly is hardly as plausible as it is certainly amusing and even as a picture of provincial manners in Shakespeare's time