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The purpose of this study is to present a coherent view of the generally accepted facts concerning the life and the work of Shakspere. Its object, the common one of serious criticism, is so to increase our sympathetic knowledge of what we study that we may enjoy it with fresh intelligence and appreciation. The means by which we shall strive for this end will be à constant effort to see Shakspere, so far as is possible at this distance of time, as he saw himself.
Of one thing we may be certain. To himself Shakspere was a very different fact from what he now seems to the English-speaking world. To people of our time he generally presents himself as an isolated, supreme genius. To people of his own time — and he was a man of his own time himself — he was certainly nothing of the kind; he was no divine prophet, no superhuman seer, whose utterances should edify and guide posterity; he was only one of a considerable company of hard-working playwrights, whose work at the moment seemed neither more nor less serious
than that of any other school of theatrical writers. Nothing but the lapse of time could have demonstrated two or three facts now so commonplace that we are apt to forget they were not always obvious.
First of all, the school of literature in which his work belongs --- the Elizabethan drama — proves to have been one of the most completely typical phenomena in the whole history of the fine arts. It took little more than half a century to emerge from an archaic tradition, to develop into great imaginative vitality, and to decline into a formal tradition, no longer archaic, but if possible less vital than the tradition from which it emerged. In this typical literary evolution, again, Shakspere's historical position happens to have been almost exactly central; some of his work belongs to the earlier period of the Elizabethan drama, much of it to the most intensely vital, some of it to the decline. This fact alone that in a remarkably typical school of art he is the most comprehensively typical figure — would make him worth serious attention. The third commonplace invisible to his contemporaries, however, is so much more important than either of the others that nowadays it obscures them, and indeed obscures the whole subject. This most typical writer of our most broadly typical literary school happened to be an artist of first-rate genius. Canting as such a phrase must sound, it has something like a precise meaning. In the fine arts, the man of genius is he who in perception and in expression alike, in thought
and in phrase, instinctively so does his work that his work remains significant after the conditions which actually produced it are past. Throughout the Elizabethan drama there were flashes of genius; in general, however, the work of the Elizabethan dramatists was so adapted to the conditions of the Elizabethan stage that, after the lapse of three centuries, its flashes of genius have faded into the obscurity of book-shelves, where they serve now chiefly to lighten the drudgery of men who study the history of literature. In the case of Shakspere, the genius was so strong and permeating that his work, from beginning to end, has survived every vestige of the conditions for which it was made. We are apt now to forget that it was made for any other conditions than those amid which, generation by generation, we find it.
If we would sincerely try to see the man as he saw himself, we inust resolutely put aside these commonplaces of posterity. In their stead we must substitute the normal commonplaces of human experience. Shakspere, we know, was an Elizabethan playwright; and we know enough of the Elizabethan drama to form, in the end, a pretty clear conception of the professional task which was thus constantly before him. By both temperament and profession, too, Shakspere was a creative artist; and those of us who have had much to do with people who try to create works of art learn to know that in general the artistic temperament, great or small, develops according to pretty
well fixed principles. Our effort to understand Shakspere, then, begins to define itself. We shall have done much if we can learn to see in him a man of normal artistic temperament, developing, in spite of its scale, in a normal way, under the known conditions which surrounded the Elizabethan theatre.
Such definite study of him as this has been possible only in recent years. Until rather lately one obstacle to it was insurmountable. To study the development of any artist, we must know something of the order in which his works were produced ; and Shakspere's works have generally been presented to us in great chronological confusion. The first collection of his plays, a very carelessly printed folio, appeared in 1623. Here they were roughly classified as comedies, histories, and tragedies ; under these heads, too, they were arranged in no sort of order. The book opens with the Tempest, for example, which is followed by the Two Gentlemen of Verona; yet nothing is now much better proved than that the Two Gentlemen of Verona is the earlier by above fifteen years. Again, the plays dealing with English history are printed in the order in which the sovereigns they deal with ascended the throne of England; yet, if we except Henry VIII., which stands by itself, nothing is more certain than that Henry VI. is chronologically the first of the series, and Henry V. the last, with an interval of at least nine years between them. The general arrangement of the plays in the first folio, fairly exemplified by these instances, is still followed
in standard editions of Shakspere. The resulting confusion of impression is almost ultimate.
During the past century or so, however, scholarship has gone far to reduce this chaos to order. On various grounds, a plausible chronology has arisen. Sixteen of the plays, and all of the poems, were published in quarto during Shakspere's lifetime. Entries in the Stationers' Register — analogous to modern copyright
-exist in many cases. Allusions in the works of contemporary writers are sometimes helpful; so are allusions to contemporary matters in the plays themselves. More subtle, less certain, but surprisingly suggestive chronological evidence has been collected by elaborate analysis of technical style. It has been discovered, for example, that end-stopped verse, and rhyme are far more frequent in Shakspere's earlier work than in his later, and that what are called light and weak endings to verses occur in constantly increasing proportion during the last six or eight years of his writing. The plays have been grouped accordingly. By some means or other, then, and in almost every case by means foreign to the actual substance of the works in question, foreign to the matters they deal with or to the mood in which they deal with them, a conjectural date -- as a rule provisionally accepted by scholars - has been assigned to every work commonly ascribed to Shakspere.
Reading the plays and the poems in this conjecturally
1 An adequate discussion of this matter is accessible to everybody in Dowden's Primer of Shakspere, pp. 32–46.