CHAPTER IV. THE ELIZABETHAN AGE (1550-1620)
This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea, ...
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England!
Shakespeare, King Richard II
HISTORICAL BACKGROUND. In such triumphant lines, falling from the
lips of that old imperialist John of Gaunt, did Shakespeare
reflect, not the rebellious spirit of the age of Richard II, but
the boundless enthusiasm of his own times, when the defeat of
Spain's mighty Armada had left England “in splendid isolation,”
unchallenged mistress of her own realm and of the encircling sea.
For it was in the latter part of Elizabeth's reign that England
found herself as a nation, and became conscious of her destiny as a
There is another and darker side to the political shield, but the
student of literature is not concerned with it. We are to remember
the patriotic enthusiasm of the age, overlooking the frequent
despotism of “good Queen Bess” and entering into the spirit of
national pride and power that thrilled all classes of Englishmen
during her reign, if we are to understand the outburst of
Elizabethan literature. Nearly two centuries of trouble and danger
had passed since Chaucer died, and no national poet had appeared in
England. The Renaissance came, and the Reformation, but they
brought no great writers with them. During the first thirty years
of Elizabeth's reign not a single important literary work was
produced; then suddenly appeared the poetry of Spenser and Chapman,
the prose of Hooker, Sidney and Bacon, the dramas of Marlowe,
Shakespeare, Ben Jonson and a score of others,—all voicing the
national feeling after the defeat of the Armada, and growing silent
as soon as the enthusiasm began to wane.
LITERARY CHARACTERISTICS. Next to the patriotic spirit of Elizabethan literature, its most notable qualities are its youthful freshness and vigor, its romantic spirit, its absorption in the theme of love, its extravagance of speech, its lively sense of the wonder of heaven and earth. The ideal beauty of Spenser's poetry, the bombast of Marlowe, the boundless zest of Shakespeare's historical plays, the romantic love celebrated in unnumbered lyrics,—all these speak of youth, of springtime, of the joy and the heroic adventure of human living.
This romantic enthusiasm of Elizabethan poetry and prose may be explained by the fact that, besides the national impulse, three other inspiring influences were at work. The first in point of time was the rediscovery of the classics of Greece and Rome,—beautiful old poems, which were as new to the Elizabethans as to Keats when he wrote his immortal sonnet, beginning:
Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold.
The second awakening factor was the widespread interest in nature and the physical sciences, which spurred many another Elizabethan besides Bacon to “take all knowledge for his province.” This new interest was generally romantic rather than scientific, was more concerned with marvels, like the philosopher's stone that would transmute all things to gold, than with the simple facts of nature. Bacon's chemical changes, which follow the “instincts” of metals, are almost on a par with those other changes described in Shakespeare's song of Ariel:
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
The third factor which stimulated the Elizabethan imagination was the discovery of the world beyond the Atlantic, a world of wealth, of beauty, of unmeasured opportunity for brave spirits, in regions long supposed to be possessed of demons, monsters, Othello's impossible
cannibals that each other eat,
The anthropophagi, and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders.
[THE NEW WORLD]
When Drake returned from his voyage around the world he brought to England two things: a tale of vast regions just over the world's rim that awaited English explorers, and a ship loaded to the hatches with gold and jewels. That the latter treasure was little better than a pirate's booty; that it was stolen from the Spaniards, who had taken it from poor savages at the price of blood and torture,—all this was not mentioned. The queen and her favorites shared the treasure with Drake's buccaneers, and the New World seemed to them a place of barbaric splendor, where the savage's wattled hut was roofed with silver, his garments beaded with all precious jewels. As a popular play of the period declares:
“Why, man, all their dripping pans are pure gold! The prisoners
they take are fettered in gold; and as for rubies and diamonds,
they goe forth on holydayes and gather 'hem by the seashore to hang
on their children's coates.”
Before the American settlements opened England's eyes to the stern reality of things, it was the romance of the New World that appealed most powerfully to the imagination, and that influenced Elizabethan literature to an extent which we have not yet begun to measure.
FOREIGN INFLUENCE. We shall understand the imitative quality of early Elizabethan poetry if we read it in the light of these facts: that in the sixteenth century England was far behind other European nations in culture; that the Renaissance had influenced Italy and Holland for a century before it crossed the Channel; that, at a time when every Dutch peasant read his Bible, the masses of English people remained in dense ignorance, and the majority of the official classes were like Shakespeare's father and daughter in that they could neither read nor write. So, when the new national spirit began to express itself in literature, Englishmen turned to the more cultured nations and began to imitate them in poetry, as in dress and manners. Shakespeare gives us a hint of the matter when he makes Portia ridicule the apishness of the English. In The Merchant of Venice (Act I, scene 2) the maid Nerissa is speaking of various princely suitors for Portia's hand. She names them over, Frenchman, Italian, Scotsman, German; but Portia makes fun of them all. The maid tries again:
Nerissa. What say you, then, to Falconbridge, the young baron of
Portia. You know I say nothing to him, for he understands not me,
nor I him: he hath neither Latin, French, nor Italian; and you will
come into the court and swear that I have a poor pennyworth in the
English. He is a proper man's picture, but, alas, who can converse
with a dumb show? How oddly he is suited! I think he bought his
doublet in Italy, his round hose in France, his bonnet in Germany
and his behaviour every where.
When Wyatt and Surrey brought the sonnet to England, they brought also the habit of imitating the Italian poets; and this habit influenced Spenser and other Elizabethans even more than Chaucer had been influenced by Dante and Petrarch. It was the fashion at that time for Italian gentlemen to write poetry; they practiced the art as they practiced riding or fencing; and presently scores of Englishmen followed Sidney's example in taking up this phase of foreign education. It was also an Italian custom to publish the works of amateur poets in the form of anthologies, and soon there appeared in England The Paradise of Dainty Devices, A Gorgeous Gallery of Gallant Inventions and other such collections, the best of which was England's Helicon (1600). Still another foreign fashion was that of writing a series of sonnets to some real or imaginary mistress; and that the fashion was followed in England is evident from Spenser's Amoretti, Sidney's Astrophel and Stella, Shakespeare's Sonnets, and other less-famous effusions.
* * * * *
SPENSER AND THE LYRIC POETS
LYRICS OF LOVE. Love was the subject of a very large part of the minor poems of the period, the monotony being relieved by an occasional ballad, such as Drayton's “Battle of Agincourt” and his “Ode to the Virginian Voyage,” the latter being one of the first poems inspired by the New World. Since love was still subject to literary rules, as in the metrical romances, it is not strange that most Elizabethan lyrics seem to the modern reader artificial. They deal largely with goddesses and airy shepherd folk; they contain many references to classic characters and scenes, to Venus, Olympus and the rest; they are nearly all characterized by extravagance of language. A single selection, “Apelles' Song” by Lyly, may serve as typical of the more fantastic love lyrics:
Cupid and my Campaspe played
At cards for kisses; Cupid paid.
He stakes his quiver, bow and arrows,
His mother's doves and team of sparrows:
Loses them too; then down he throws
The coral of his lip, the rose
Growing on's cheek (but none knows how);
With these the crystal of his brow,
And then the dimple of his chin.
All these did my Campaspe win.
At last he set her both his eyes;
She won, and Cupid blind did rise.
O Love, has she done this to thee?
What shall, alas! become of me?
MUSIC AND POETRY. Another reason for the outburst of lyric poetry in Elizabethan times was that choral music began to be studied, and there was great demand for new songs. Then appeared a theory of the close relation between poetry and music, which was followed by the American poet Lanier more than two centuries later. [Footnote: Much of Lanier's verse seems more like a musical improvisation than like an ordinary poem. His theory that music and poetry are subject to the same laws is developed in his Science of English Verse. It is interesting to note that Lanier's ancestors were musical directors at the courts of Elizabeth and of James I.] This interesting theory is foreshadowed in several minor works of the period; for example, in Barnfield's sonnet “To R. L.,” beginning:
If music and sweet poetry agree,
As they must needs, the sister and the brother,
Then must the love be great 'twixt thee and me,
Because thou lov'st the one, and I the other.
The stage caught up the new fashion, and hundreds of lyrics appeared in the Elizabethan drama, such as Dekker's “Content” (from the play of Patient Grissell), which almost sets itself to music as we read it:
Art thou poor, yet hast thou golden slumbers?
O sweet content!
Art thou rich, yet is thy mind perplexed?
Dost laugh to see how fools are vexed
To add to golden numbers golden numbers?
O sweet content, O sweet, O sweet content!
Work apace, apace, apace, apace!
Honest labour bears a lovely face.
Then hey noney, noney; hey noney, noney!
Canst drink the waters of the crisped spring?
O sweet content!
Swim'st thou in wealth, yet sink'st in thine own tears?
Then he that patiently want's burden bears
No burden bears, but is a king, a king.
O sweet content, O sweet, O sweet content!
So many lyric poets appeared during this period that we cannot here classify them; and it would be idle to list their names. The best place to make acquaintance with theo is not in a dry history of literature, but in such a pleasant little book as Palgrave's Golden Treasury, where their best work is accessible to every reader.
* * * * *
EDMUND SPENSER (1552-1599)
Spenser was the second of the great English poets, and it is but natural to compare him with Chaucer, who was the first. In respect of time nearly two centuries separate these elder poets; in all other respects, in aims, ideals, methods, they are as far apart as two men of the same race can well be.
LIFE. Very little is known of Spenser; he appears in the light,
then vanishes into the shadow, like his Arthur of The Faery
Queen. We see him for a moment in the midst of rebellion in
Ireland, or engaged in the scramble for preferment among the
queen's favorites; he disappears, and from his obscurity comes a
poem that is like the distant ringing of a chapel bell, faintly
heard in the clatter of the city streets. We shall try here to
understand this poet by dissolving some of the mystery that
He was born in London, and spent his youth amid the political and
religious dissensions of the times of Mary and Elizabeth. For all
this turmoil Spenser had no stomach; he was a man of peace, of
books, of romantic dreams. He was of noble family, but poor; his
only talent was to write poetry, and as poetry would not buy much
bread in those days, his pride of birth was humbled in seeking the
patronage of nobles:
Full little knowest thou, that hast not tried,
What hell it is in suing long to bide: ...
To fawn, to crouch, to wait, to ride, to run,
To spend, to give, to want, to be undone.
To the liberality of a patron he owed his education at Cambridge.
It was then the heyday of Renaissance studies, and Spenser steeped
himself in Greek, Latin and Italian literatures. Everything that
was antique was then in favor at the universities; there was a
revival of interest in Old-English poetry, which accounts largely
for Spenser's use of obsolete words and his imitation of Chaucer's
After graduation he spent some time in the north of England,
probably as a tutor, and had an unhappy love affair, which he
celebrated in his poems to Rosalind. Then he returned to London,
lived by favor in the houses of Sidney and Leicester, and through
these powerful patrons was appointed secretary to Lord Grey de
Wilton, the queen's deputy in Ireland.
From this time on our poet is represented as a melancholy Spenser's
“exile,” but that is a poetic fiction. At that time Ireland, having
refused to follow the Reformation, was engaged in a desperate
struggle for civil and religious liberty. Every English army that
sailed to crush this rebellion was accompanied by a swarm of
parasites, each inspired by the hope of getting one of the rich
estates that were confiscated from Irish owners. Spenser seems to
have been one of these expectant adventurers who accompanied Lord
Grey in his campaign of brutality. To the horrors of that campaign
the poet was blind; [Footnote: The barbarism of Spenser's view, a
common one at that time, is reflected in his View of the Present
State of Ireland. Honorable warfare on land or sea was unknown
in Elizabeth's day. Scores of pirate ships of all nations were then
openly preying on commerce. Drake, Frobisher and many other
Elizabethan “heroes” were at times mere buccaneers who shared their
plunder with the queen. In putting down the Irish rebellion Lords
Grey and Essex used some of the same horrible methods employed by
the notorious Duke of Alva in the Netherlands.] his sympathies were
all for his patron Grey, who appears in The Faery Queen as Sir
Artegall, “the model of true justice.”
For his services Spenser was awarded the castle of Kilcolman and
3000 acres of land, which had been taken from the Earl of Desmond.
In the same way Raleigh became an Irish landlord, with 40,000 acres
to his credit; and so these two famous Elizabethans were thrown
together in exile, as they termed it. Both longed to return to
England, to enjoy London society and the revenues of Irish land at
the same time, but unfortunately one condition of their immense
grants was that they should occupy the land and keep the rightful
owners from possessing it.
[WORK IN IRELAND]
In Ireland Spenser began to write his masterpiece The Faery
Queen. Raleigh, to whom the first three books were read, was so
impressed by the beauty of the work that he hurried the poet off to
London, and gained for him the royal favor. In the poem “Colin
Clout's Come Home Again” we may read Spenser's account of how the
court impressed him after his sojourn in Ireland.
The publication of the first parts of The Faery Queen (1590)
raised Spenser to the foremost place in English letters. He was
made poet-laureate, and used every influence of patrons and of
literary success to the end that he be allowed to remain in London,
but the queen was flint-hearted, insisting that he must give up his
estate or occupy it. So he returned sorrowfully to “exile,” and
wrote three more books of The Faery Queen. To his other
offices was added that of sheriff of County Cork, an adventurous
office for any man even in times of peace, and for a poet, in a
time of turmoil, an invitation to disaster. Presently another
rebellion broke out, Kilcolman castle was burned, and the poet's
family barely escaped with their lives. It was said by Ben Jonson
that one of Spenser's children and some parts of The Faery
Queen perished in the fire, but the truth of the saying has not
Soon after this experience, which crushed the poet's spirit, he was
ordered on official business to London, and died on the journey in
1599. As he was buried beside Chaucer, in Westminster Abbey, poets
were seen casting memorial verses and the pens that had written
them into his tomb.
In character Spenser was unfitted either for the intrigues among
Elizabeth's favorites or for the more desperate scenes amid which
his Lot was cast. Unlike his friend Raleigh, who was a man of
action, Spenser was essentially a dreamer, and except in Cambridge
he seems never to have felt at home. His criticism of the age as
barren and hopeless, and the melancholy of the greater part of his
work, indicate that for him, at least, the great Elizabethan times
were “out of joint.” The world, which thinks of Spenser as a great
poet, has forgotten that he thought of himself as a disappointed
WORKS OF SPENSER. The poems of Spenser may be conveniently grouped in three classes. In the first are the pastorals of The Shepherd's Calendar, in which he reflects some of the poetical fashions of his age. In the second are the allegories of The Faery Queen, in which he pictures the state of England as a struggle between good and evil. In the third class are his occasional poems of friendship and love, such as the Amoretti. All his works are alike musical, and all remote from ordinary life, like the eerie music of a wind harp.
The Shepherd's Calendar (1579) is famous as the poem which announced that a successor to Chaucer had at last appeared in England. It is an amateurish work in which Spenser tried various meters; and to analyze it is to discover two discordant elements, which we may call fashionable poetry and puritanic preaching. Let us understand these elements clearly, for apart from them the Calendar is a meaningless work.
It was a fashion among Italian poets to make eclogues or pastoral poems about shepherds, their dancing, piping, love-making,—everything except a shepherd's proper business. Spenser followed this artificial fashion in his Calendar by making twelve pastorals, one for each month of the year. These all take the form of conversations, accompanied by music and dancing, and the personages are Cuddie, Diggon, Hobbinoll, and other fantastic shepherds. According to poetic custom these should sing only of love; but in Spenser's day religious controversy was rampant, and flattery might not be overlooked by a poet who aspired to royal favor. So while the January pastoral tells of the unhappy love of Colin Clout (Spenser) for Rosalind, the springtime of April calls for a song in praise of Elizabeth:
Lo, how finely the Graces can it foot
To the instrument!
They dancen deffly and singen soote,
In their merriment.
Wants not a fourth Grace to make the dance even?
Let that room to my Lady be yeven.
She shall be a Grace,
To fill the fourth place,
And reign with the rest in heaven.
In May the shepherds are rival pastors of the Reformation, who end their sermons with an animal fable; in summer they discourse of Puritan theology; October brings them to contemplate the trials and disappointments of a poet, and the series ends with a parable comparing life to the four seasons of the year.
The moralizing of The Shepherd's Calendar and the uncouth spelling which Spenser affected detract from the interest of the poem; but one who has patience to read it finds on almost every page some fine poetic line, and occasionally a good song, like the following (from the August pastoral) in which two shepherds alternately supply the lines of a roundelay:
Sitting upon a hill so high,
Hey, ho, the high hill!
The while my flock did feed thereby,
The while the shepherd's self did spill,
I saw the bouncing Bellibone,
Hey, ho, Bonnibell!
Tripping over the dale alone;
She can trip it very well.
Well decked in a frock of gray,
Hey, ho, gray is greet!
And in a kirtle of green say;
The green is for maidens meet.
A chaplet on her head she wore,
Hey, ho, chapelet!
Of sweet violets therein was store,
She sweeter than the violet.
THE FAERY QUEEN. Let us hear one of the stories of this celebrated poem, and after the tale is told we may discover Spenser's purpose in writing all the others.
From the court of Gloriana, Queen of Faery, the gallant Sir Guyon
sets out on adventure bent, and with him is a holy Palmer, or
pilgrim, to protect him from the evil that lurks by every wayside.
Hardly have the two entered the first wood when they fall into the
hands of the wicked Archimago, who spends his time in devising
spells or enchantments for the purpose of leading honest folk
For all he did was to deceive good knights,
And draw them from pursuit of praise and fame.
Escaping from the snare, Guyon hears a lamentation, and turns aside
to find a beautiful woman dying beside a dead knight. Her story is,
that her man has been led astray by the Lady Acrasia, who leads
many knights to her Bower of Bliss, and there makes them forget
honor and knightly duty. Guyon vows to right this wrong, and
proceeds on the adventure.
With the Palmer and a boatman he embarks in a skiff and crosses the
Gulf of Greediness, deadly whirlpools on one side, and on the other
the Magnet Mountain with wrecks of ships strewed about its foot.
Sighting the fair Wandering Isles, he attempts to land, attracted
here by a beautiful damsel, there by a woman in distress; but the
Palmer tells him that these seeming women are evil shadows placed
there to lead men astray. Next he meets the monsters of the deep,
“sea-shouldering whales,” “scolopendras,” “grisly wassermans,”
“mighty monoceroses with unmeasured tails.” Escaping these, he
meets a greater peril in the mermaids, who sing to him alluringly:
This is port of rest from troublous toil,
The world's sweet inn from pain and wearisome turmoil.
Many other sea-dangers are passed before Guyon comes to land, where
he is immediately charged by a bellowing herd of savage beasts.
Only the power of the Palmer's holy staff saves the knight from
This is the last physical danger which Guyon encounters. As he goes
forward the country becomes an earthly paradise, where pleasures
call to him from every side. It is his soul, not his body, which is
now in peril. Here is the Palace of Pleasure, its wondrous gates
carved with images representing Jason's search for the Golden
Fleece. Beyond it are parks, gardens, fountains, and the beautiful
Lady Excess, who squeezes grapes into a golden cup and offers it to
Guyon as an invitation to linger. The scene grows ever more
entrancing as he rejects the cup of Excess and pushes onward:
Eftsoones they heard a most melodious sound
Of all that mote delight a dainty ear,
Such as at once might not on living ground,
Save in this paradise, be heard elsewhere:
Right hard it was for wight which did it hear
To read what manner music that mote be;
For all that pleasing is to living ear
Was there consorted in one harmony;
Birds, voices, instruments, winds, waters, all agree.
Amid such allurements Guyon comes at last to where beautiful
Acrasia lives, with knights who forget their knighthood. From the
open portal comes a melody, the voice of an unseen singer lifting
up the old song of Epicurus and of Omar:
Gather the rose of love whilst yet is time.
The following scenes in the Bower of Bliss were plainly suggested
by the Palace of Circe, in the Odyssey; but where Homer is
direct, simple, forceful, Spenser revels in luxuriant details. He
charms all Guyon's senses with color, perfume, beauty, harmony;
then he remembers that he is writing a moral poem, and suddenly his
delighted knight turns reformer. He catches Acrasia in a net woven
by the Palmer, and proceeds to smash her exquisite abode with
But all those pleasaunt bowers and palace brave
Guyon brake down with rigour pitilesse.
As they fare forth after the destruction, the herd of horrible
beasts is again encountered, and lo! all these creatures are men
whom Acrasia has transformed into brutal shapes. The Palmer
“strooks” them all with his holy staff, and they resume their human
semblance. Some are glad, others wroth at the change; and one named
Grylle, who had been a hog, reviles his rescuers for disturbing
him; which gives the Palmer a final chance to moralize:
Let Grylle be Grylle and have his hoggish mind;
But let us hence depart while weather serves and wind.
Such is Spenser's story of Sir Guyon, or Temperance. It is a long story, drifting through eighty-seven stanzas, but it is only a final chapter or canto of the second book of The Faery Queen. Preceding it are eleven other cantos which serve as an introduction. So leisurely is Spenser in telling a tale! One canto deals with the wiles of Archimago and of the “false witch” Duessa; in another the varlet Braggadocchio steals Guyon's horse and impersonates a knight, until he is put to shame by the fair huntress Belphoebe, who is Queen Elizabeth in disguise. Now Elizabeth had a hawk face which was far from comely, but behold how it appeared to a poet:
Her face so fair, as flesh it seemed not,
But heavenly portrait of bright angel's hue,
Clear as the sky, withouten blame or blot,
Through goodly mixture of complexions due;
And in her cheek the vermeil red did shew
Like roses in a bed of lilies shed,
The which ambrosial odours from them threw
And gazers' sense with double pleasure fed,
Able to heal the sick and to revive the dead.
There are a dozen more stanzas devoted to her voice, her eyes, her hair, her more than mortal beauty. Other cantos of the same book are devoted to Guyon's temptations; to his victories over Furor and Mammon; to his rescue of the Lady Alma, besieged by a horde of villains in her fair Castle of Temperance. In this castle was an aged man, blind but forever doting over old records; and this gives Spenser the inspiration for another long canto devoted to the ancient kings of Britain. So all is fish that comes to this poet's net; but as one who is angling for trout is vexed by the nibbling of chubs, the reader grows weary of Spenser's story before his story really begins.
[THE FIRST BOOK]
Other books of The Faery Queen are so similar in character to the one just described that a canto from any one of them may be placed without change in any other. In the first book, for example, the Redcross Knight (Holiness) fares forth accompanied by the Lady Una (Religion). Straightway they meet the enchanter Archimago, who separates them by fraud and magic. The Redcross Knight, led to believe that his Una is false, comes, after many adventures, to Queen Lucifera in the House of Pride; meanwhile Una wanders alone amidst perils, and by her beauty subdues the lion and the satyrs of the wood. The rest of the book recounts their adventures with paynims, giants and monsters, with Error, Avarice, Falsehood and other allegorical figures.
It is impossible to outline such a poem, for the simple reason that it has no outlines. It is a phantasmagoria of beautiful and grotesque shapes, of romance, morality and magic. Reading it is like watching cloud masses, aloft and remote, in which the imagination pictures men, monsters, landscapes, which change as we view them without cause or consequence. Though The Faery Queen is overfilled with adventure, it has no action, as we ordinarily understand the term. Its continual motion is without force or direction, like the vague motions of a dream.
[PLAN OF THE FAERY QUEEN]
What, then, was Spenser's object in writing The Faery Queen? His professed object was to use poetry in the service of morality by portraying the political and religious affairs of England as emblematic of a worldwide conflict between good and evil. According to his philosophy (which, he tells us, he borrowed from Aristotle) there were twelve chief virtues, and he planned twelve books to celebrate them. [Footnote: Only six of these books are extant, treating of the Redcross Knight or Holiness, Sir Guyon or Temperance, Britomartis or Chastity, Cambel and Triamond or Friendship, Sir Artegall or Justice, and Sir Calidore or Courtesy. The rest of the allegory, if written, may have been destroyed in the fire of Kilcolman.] In each book a knight or a lady representing a single virtue goes forth into the world to conquer evil. In all the books Arthur, or Magnificence (the sum of all virtue), is apt to appear in any crisis; Lady Una represents religion; Archimago is another name for heresy, and Duessa for falsehood; and in order to give point to Spenser's allegory the courtiers and statesmen of the age are all flattered as glorious virtues or condemned as ugly vices.
Those who are fond of puzzles may delight in giving names and dates to these allegorical personages, in recognizing Elizabeth in Belphoebe or Britomart or Marcella, Sidney in the Redcross Knight, Leicester in Arthur, Raleigh in Timias, Mary Stuart in Duessa, and so on through the list of characters good or evil. The beginner will wisely ignore all such interpretation, and for two reasons: first, because Spenser's allegories are too shadowy to be taken seriously; and second, because as a chronicler of the times he is outrageously partisan and untrustworthy. In short, to search for any reality in The Faery Queen is to spoil the poem as a work of the imagination. “If you do not meddle with the allegory,” said Hazlitt, “the allegory will not meddle with you.”
MINOR POEMS. The minor poems of Spenser are more interesting, because more human, than the famous work which we have just considered. Prominent among these poems are the Amoretti, a collection of sonnets written in honor of the Irish girl Elizabeth, who became the poet's wife. They are artificial, to be sure, but no more so than other love poems of the period. In connection with a few of these sonnets may be read Spenser's four “Hymns” (in honor of Love, Beauty, Heavenly Love and Heavenly Beauty) and especially his “Epithalamium,” a marriage hymn which Brooke calls, with pardonable enthusiasm, “the most glorious love song in the English language.”
A CRITICISM OF SPENSER. In reading The Faery Queen one must note the contrast between Spenser's matter and his manner. His matter is: religion, chivalry, mythology, Italian romance, Arthurian legends, the struggles of Spain and England on the Continent, the Reformation, the turmoil of political parties, the appeal of the New World,—a summary of all stirring matters that interested his own tumultuous age. His manner is the reverse of what one might expect under the circumstances. He writes no stirring epic of victory or defeat, and never a downright word of a downright man, but a dreamy, shadowy narrative as soothing as the abode of Morpheus:
And, more to lulle him in his slumber soft,
A trickling stream from high rock tumbling downe,
And ever-drizzling rain upon the loft,
Mixt with a murmuring winde, much like the sowne
Of swarming bees, did cast him in a swowne.
No other noyse, nor people's troublous cryes,
As still are wont t' annoy the walled towne,
Might there be heard; but careless Quiet lyes
Wrapt in eternal silence far from enemyes.
Such stanzas (and they abound in every book of The Faery Queen ) are poems in themselves; but unfortunately they distract attention from the story, which soon loses all progression and becomes as the rocking of an idle boat on the swell of a placid sea. The invention of this melodious stanza, ever since called “Spenserian,” was in itself a notable achievement which influenced all subsequent English poetry. [Footnote: The Spenserian was an improvement on the ottava-rima, or eight-line stanza, of the Italians. It has been used by Burns in “The Cotter's Saturday Night,” by Shelley in “The Revolt of Islam,” by Byron in “Childe Harold,” by Keats in “The Eve of St. Agnes,” and by many other poets.]
As Spenser's faults cannot be ignored, let us be rid of them as quickly as possible. We record, then: the unreality of his great work; its lack of human interest, which causes most of us to drop the poem after a single canto; its affected antique spelling; its use of fone (foes), dan (master), teene (trouble), swink (labor), and of many more obsolete words; its frequent torturing of the king's English to make a rime; its utter lack of humor, appearing in such absurd lines as,
Astond he stood, and up his hair did hove.
Such defects are more than offset by Spenser's poetic virtues. We note, first, the moral purpose which allies him with the medieval poets in aim, but not in method. By most medieval romancers virtue was regarded as a means to an end, as in the Morte d' Arthur, where a knight made a vow of purity in order to obtain a sight of the Holy Grail. With Spenser virtue is not a means but an end, beautiful and desirable for its own sake; while sin is so pictured that men avoid it because of its intrinsic ugliness. This is the moral secret of The Faery Queen, in which virtues are personified as noble knights or winsome women, while the vices appear in the repulsive guise of hags, monsters and “loathy beasts.”
[SENSE OF BEAUTY]
Spenser's sense of ideal beauty or, as Lanier expressed it, “the beauty of holiness and the holiness of beauty,” is perhaps his greatest poetic quality. He is the poet-painter of the Renaissance; he fills his pages with descriptions of airy loveliness, as Italian artists covered the high ceilings of Venice with the reflected splendor of earth and heaven. Moreover, his sense of beauty found expression in such harmonious lines that one critic describes him as having set beautiful figures moving to exquisite music.
In consequence of this beauty and melody, Spenser has been the inspiration of nearly all later English singers. Milton was one of the first to call him master, and then in a long succession such diverse poets as Dryden, Burns, Wordsworth, Scott, Shelley, Keats, Byron, Tennyson and Swinburne. The poet of “Faery” has influenced all these and more so deeply that he has won the distinctive title of “the poets' poet.”
* * * * *
“Few events in our literary history are so startling as this sudden rise of the Elizabethan drama,” says Green in his History of the English People, and his judgment is echoed by other writers who speak of the “marvelous efflorescence” of the English drama as a matter beyond explanation. Startling it may be, with its frank expression of a nation's life, the glory and the shame of it; but there is nothing sudden or inexplicable about it, as we may see by reviewing the history of playwriting in England.
THE RELIGIOUS DRAMA. In its simplicity the drama is a familiar story retold to the eye by actors who “make believe” that they are the heroes of the action. In this elemental form the play is almost as old as humanity. Indeed, it seems to be a natural impulse of children to act a story which has given them pleasure; of primitive men also, who from time immemorial have kept alive the memory of tribal heroes by representing their deeds in play or pantomime. Thus, certain parts of Hiawatha are survivals of dramatic myths that were once acted at the spring assembly of the Algonquin Indians. An interesting fact concerning these primitive dramas, whether in India or Greece or Persia, is that they were invariably associated with some religious belief or festival.
[THE FIRST MIRACLES]
A later example of this is found in the Church, which at an early age began to make its holy-day services more impressive by means of Miracle plays and Mysteries. [Footnote: In France any play representing the life of a saint was called miracle, and a play dealing with the life of Christ was called mystere. In England no such distinction was made, the name “Miracle” being given to any drama dealing with Bible history or with the lives of the saints.] At Christmas time, for example, the beautiful story of Bethlehem would be made more vivid by placing in a corner of the parish church an image of a babe in a manger, with shepherds and the Magi at hand, and the choir in white garments chanting the Gloria in excelsis. Other festivals were celebrated in a similar way until a cycle of simple dramas had been prepared, clustering around four cardinal points of Christian teaching; namely, Creation, the Fall, Redemption, and Doomsday or the Last Judgment.
[GROWTH OF THE MIRACLES]
At first such plays were given in the church, and were deeply religious in spirit. They made a profound impression in England especially, where people flocked in such numbers to see them that presently they overflowed to the churchyard, and from there to the city squares or the town common. Once outside the church, they were taken up by the guilds or trades-unions, in whose hands they lost much of their religious character. Actors were trained for the stage rather than for the church, and to please the crowds elements of comedy and buffoonery were introduced, [Footnote: In the “Shepherd's Play” or “Play of the Nativity,” for example, the adoration of the Magi is interrupted by Mak, who steals a sheep and carries it to his wife. She hides the carcass in a cradle, and sings a lullaby to it while the indignant shepherds are searching the house.] until the sacred drama degenerated into a farce. Here and there, however, a true Miracle survived and kept its character unspotted even to our own day, as in the famous Passion Play at Oberammergau.
[CYCLES OF PLAYS]
When and how these plays came to England is unknown. By the year 1300 they were extremely popular, and continued so until they were replaced by the Elizabethan drama. Most of the important towns of England had each its own cycle of plays [Footnote: At present only four good cycles of Miracles are known to exist; namely, the Chester, York, Townley (or Wakefield) and Coventry plays. The number of plays varies, from twenty-five in the Chester to forty-eight in the York cycle.] which were given once a year, the performance lasting from three to eight days in a prolonged festival. Every guild responsible for a play had its own stage, which was set on wheels and drawn about the town to appointed open places, where a crowd was waiting for it. When it passed on, to repeat the play to a different audience, another stage took its place. The play of “Creation” would be succeeded by the “Temptation of Adam and Eve,” and so on until the whole cycle of Miracles from “Creation” to “Doomsday” had been performed. It was the play not the audience that moved, and in this trundling about of the stage van we are reminded of Thespis, the alleged founder of Greek tragedy, who went about with his cart and his play from one festival to another.
Two other dramatic types, the Morality and the Interlude, probably grew out of the religious drama. In one of the old Miracles we find two characters named Truth and Righteousness, who are severe in their denunciation of Adam, while Mercy and Peace plead for his life. Other virtues appear in other Miracles, then Death and the Seven Deadly Sins, until we have a play in which all the characters are personified virtues or vices. Such a play was called a Morality, and it aimed to teach right conduct, as the Miracles had at first aimed to teach right doctrine.
The Interlude was at first a crude sketch, a kind of ancient side show, introduced into the Miracle plays after the latter had been taken up by the guilds. A boy with a trained pig, a quarrel between husband and wife,—any farce was welcome so long as it amused the crowd or enlivened the Miracle. In time, however, the writing of Interludes became a profession; they improved rapidly in character, were separated from the Miracles, and were performed at entertainments or “revels” by trade guilds, by choir boys and by companies of strolling actors or “minstrels.” At the close of such entertainments the minstrels would add a prayer for the king (an inheritance from the religious drama), and this impressive English custom still survives in the singing of “God Save the King” at the end of a public assembly.
THE SECULAR DRAMA. When the Normans came to England they brought with them a love of pageants, or spectacles, that was destined to have an important influence on the drama. These pageants, representing scenes from history or mythology (such as the bout between Richard and Saladin, or the combat between St. George and the Dragon), were staged to celebrate feasts, royal weddings, treaties or any other event that seemed of special importance. From Norman times they increased steadily in favor until Elizabeth began her “progresses” through England, when every castle or town must prepare a play or pageant to entertain the royal visitor.
From simple pantomime the pageant developed into a masque; that is, a dramatic entertainment accompanied by poetry and music. Hundreds of such masques were written and acted before Shakespeare's day; the taste for them survived long after the Elizabethan drama had decayed; and a few of them, such as The Sad Shepherd of Ben Jonson and the Comus of Milton, may still be read with pleasure.
While the nobles were thus occupied with pageants and masques, the common people were developing a crude drama in which comedy predominated. Such were the Christmas plays or “mummings,” introducing the characters of Merry Andrew and Old King Cole, which began in England before the Conquest, and which survived in country places down to our own times. [Footnote: In Hardy's novel The Return of the Native may be found a description of these mummings (from “mum,” a mask) in the nineteenth century. In Scott's novel The Abbot we have a glimpse of other mummings, such as were given to celebrate feast days of the Church.] More widespread than the mummings were crude spectacles prepared in celebration of secular holidays,—the May Day plays, for example, which represented the adventures of Robin Hood and his merry men. To these popular comedies the Church contributed liberally, though unwillingly; its holy days became holidays to the crowd, and its solemn fasts were given over to merriment, to the festa fatuorum, or play of fools, in which such characters as Boy Bishop, Lord of Misrule and various clowns or jesters made a scandalous caricature of things ecclesiastical. Such plays, prepared largely by clerks and choir boys, were repeatedly denounced by priest or bishop, but they increased rapidly from the twelfth to the sixteenth century.
[SPREAD OF THE DRAMA]
By the latter date England seemed in danger of going spectacle-mad; and we may understand the symptoms if we remember that the play was then almost the only form of popular amusement; that it took the place of the modern newspaper, novel, political election and ball game, all combined. The trade guilds, having trained actors for the springtime Miracles, continued to give other plays throughout the year. The servants of a nobleman, having given a pageant to welcome the queen, went out through the country in search of money or adventure, and presented the same spectacle wherever they could find an audience. When the Renaissance came, reviving interest in the classics, Latin plays were taken up eagerly and presented in modified form by every important school or university in England. In this way our first regular comedy, Ralph Royster Doyster (written by Nicholas Udall, Master of Eton, and acted by his schoolboys cir. 1552), was adapted from an old Latin comedy, the Miles Gloriosus of Plautus.
The awakened interest in music had also its influences on the English drama. The choir boys of a church were frequently called upon to furnish music at a play, and from this it was but a step to furnish both the play and the music. So great was the demand to hear these boys that certain choir masters (those of St. Paul's and the Chapel Royal) obtained the right to take any poor boy with a good voice and train him, ostensibly for the service of the Church, but in reality to make a profitable actor out of him. This dangerous practice was stimulated by the fact that the feminine parts in all plays had to be taken by boys, the stage being then deemed an unfit place for a woman. And it certainly was. If a boy “took to his lines,” his services were sold from one company to another, much as the popular ball player is now sold, but with this difference, that the poor boy had no voice or profit in the transaction. Some of these lads were cruelly treated; all were in danger of moral degradation. The abuse was finally suppressed by Parliament, but not until the choir-boy players were rivals of the regular companies, in which Shakespeare and Ben Jonson played their parts.
CLASSICAL AND ENGLISH DRAMA. At the time of Shakespeare's birth two types of plays were represented in England. The classic drama, modeled upon Greek or Roman plays, was constructed according to the dramatic “unities,” which Aristotle foreshadowed in his Treatise on Poetry. According to this authority, every play must be concerned with a “single, important and complete event”; in other words, it must have “unity of action.” A second rule, relating to “unity of time,” required that the events represented in a play must all occur within a single day. A third provided that the action should take place in the same locality, and this was known as the “unity of place.” [Footnote: The Roman philosopher and dramatist Seneca (d. 65 A.D.) is supposed to have established this rule. The influence of Aristotle on the “unities” is a matter of dispute.] Other rules of classic drama required that tragedy and comedy should not occur in the same play, and that battles, murders and all such violent affairs should never be represented on the stage but be announced at the proper time by a messenger.
[THE NATIVE DRAMA]
The native plays ignored these classic unities. The public demanded chronicle plays, for example, in which the action must cover years of time, and jump from court to battlefield in following the hero. Tragedy and comedy, instead of being separated, were represented as meeting at every crossroad or entering the church door side by side. So the most solemn Miracles were scandalized by humorous Interludes, and into the most tragic of Shakespeare's scenes entered the fool and the jester. A Greek playwright might object to brutalizing scenes before a cultured audience, but the crowds who came to an Elizabethan play were of a temper to enjoy a Mohawk scalp dance. They were accustomed to violent scenes and sensations; they had witnessed the rack and gibbet in constant operation; they were familiar with the sight of human heads decorating the posts of London Bridge or carried about on the pikes of soldiers. After witnessing such horrors free of cost, they would follow their queen and pay their money to see a chained bear torn to pieces by ferocious bulldogs. Then they would go to a play, and throw stones or dead cats at the actors if their tastes were not gratified.
To please such crowds no stage action could possibly be too rough; hence the riotousness of the early theaters, which for safety were placed outside the city limits; hence also the blood and thunder of Shakespeare's Adronicus and the atrocities represented in the plays of Kyd and Marlowe.
[THE TWO SCHOOLS]
Following such different ideals, two schools of playwrights appeared in England. One school, the University Wits, to whom we owe our first real tragedy, Gorboduc, [Footnote: This play, called also Ferrex and Porrex, was written by Sackville and Norton, and played in 1562, only two years before Shakespeare's birth. It related how Gorboduc divided his British kingdom between his two sons, who quarreled and threw the whole country into rebellion—a story much like that used by Shakespeare in King Lear. The violent parts of this first tragedy were not represented on the stage but were announced by a messenger. At the end of each act a “chorus” summed up the situation, as in classic tragedy. Gorboduc differed from all earlier plays in that it was divided into acts and scenes, and was written in blank verse. It is generally regarded as the first in time of the Elizabethan dramas. A few comedies divided into acts and scenes were written before Gorboduc, but not in the blank verse with which we associate an Elizabethan play.] aimed to make the English drama like that of Greece and Rome. The other, or native, school aimed at a play which should represent life, or please the crowd, without regard to any rules ancient or modern. The best Elizabethan drama was a combination of classic and native elements, with the latter predominating.
SHAKESPEARE'S PREDECESSORS. In a general way, all unknown men who for three centuries had been producing miracle plays, moralities, interludes, masques and pageants were Shakespeare's predecessors; but we refer here to a small group of playwrights who rapidly developed what is now called the Elizabethan drama. The time was the last quarter of the sixteenth century.
By that time England was as excited over the stage as a modern community over the “movies.” Plays were given on every important occasion by choir boys, by noblemen's servants, by court players governed by the Master of Revels, by grammar schools and universities, by trade guilds in every shire of England. Actors were everywhere in training, and audiences gathered as to a bull-baiting whenever a new spectacle was presented. Then came the awakening of the national consciousness, the sense of English pride and power after the defeat of the Armada, and this new national spirit found expression in hundreds of chronicle plays representing the past glories of Britain. [Footnote: Over two hundred chronicle plays, representing almost every important character in English history, appeared within a few years. Shakespeare wrote thirteen plays founded on English history, and three on the history of other countries.]
It was at this “psychological moment,” when English patriotism was aroused and London was as the heart of England, that a group of young actors—Greene, Lyly, Peele, Dekker, Nash, Kyd, Marlowe, and others of less degree—seized upon the crude popular drama, enlarged it to meet the needs of the time, and within a single generation made it such a brilliant reflection of national thought and feeling as no other age has thus far produced.
MARLOWE. The best of these early playwrights, each of whom contributed some element of value, was Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593), who is sometimes called the father of the Elizabethan drama. He appeared in London sometime before 1587, when his first drama Tamburlaine took the city by storm. The prologue of this drama is at once a criticism and a promise:
From jigging veins of rhyming mother-wits,
And such conceits as clownage keeps in pay,
We'll lead you to the stately tent of war,
Where you shall hear the Scythian Tamburlaine
Threatening the world with high-astounding terms,
And scourging kingdoms with his conquering sword.
The “jigging” refers to the doggerel verse of the earlier drama, and “clownage” to the crude horseplay intended to amuse the crowd. For the doggerel is substituted blank verse, “Marlowe's mighty line” as it has ever since been called, since he was the first to use it with power; and for the “clownage” he promises a play of human interest revolving around a man whose sole ambition is for world power,—such ambition as stirred the English nation when it called halt to the encroachments of Spain, and announced that henceforth it must be reckoned with in the councils of the Continent. Though Tamburlaine is largely rant and bombast, there is something in it which fascinates us like the sight of a wild bull on a rampage; for such was Timur, the hero of the first play to which we confidently give the name Elizabethan. In the latter part of the play the action grows more intense; there is a sense of tragedy, of impending doom, in the vain attempt of the hero to oppose fate. He can conquer a world but not his own griefs; he ends his triumphant career with a pathetic admission of failure: “And Tamburlaine, the Scourge of God, must die.”
The succeeding plays of Marlowe are all built on the same model; that is, they are one-man plays, and the man is dominated by a passion for power. Doctor Faustus, the most poetical of Marlowe's works, is a play representing a scholar who hungers for more knowledge, especially the knowledge of magic. In order to obtain it he makes a bargain with the devil, selling his soul for twenty-four years of unlimited power and pleasure. [Footnote: The story is the same as that of Goethe's Faust. It was a favorite story, or rather collection of stories, of the Middle Ages, and was first printed as the History of Johann Faust in Frankfort, in 1587. Marlowe's play was written, probably, in the same year.] The Jew of Malta deals with the lust for such power as wealth gives, and the hero is the money-lender Barabas, a monster of avarice and hate, who probably suggested to Shakespeare the character of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. The last play written by Marlowe was Edward II, which dealt with a man who might have been powerful, since he was a king, but who furnished a terrible example of weakness and petty tyranny that ended miserably in a dungeon.
After writing these four plays with their extraordinary promise, Marlowe, who led a wretched life, was stabbed in a tavern brawl. The splendid work which he only began (for he died under thirty years of age) was immediately taken up by the greatest of all dramatists, Shakespeare.
* * * * *
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE (1564-1616)
“The name of Shakespeare is the greatest in all literature. No man
ever came near to him in the creative power of the mind; no man
ever had such strength and such variety of imagination.” (Hallam)
“Shakespeare's mind is the horizon beyond which, at present, we do
not see.” (Emerson)
“I do not believe that any book or person or event in my life ever
made so great an impression on me as the plays of Shakespeare. They
appear to be the work of some heavenly genius.” (Goethe)
Shakespeare's name has become a signal for enthusiasm. The tributes quoted above are doubtless extravagant, but they were written by men of mark in three different countries, and they serve to indicate the tremendous impression which Shakespeare has left upon the world. He wrote in his day some thirty-seven plays and a few poems; since then as many hundred volumes have been written in praise of his accomplishment. He died three centuries ago, without caring enough for his own work to print it. At the present time unnumbered critics, historians, scholars, are still explaining the mind and the art displayed in that same neglected work. Most of these eulogists begin or end their volumes with the remark that Shakespeare is so great as to be above praise or criticism. As Taine writes, before plunging into his own analysis, “Lofty words, eulogies are all used in vain; Shakespeare needs not praise but comprehension merely.”
LIFE. It is probably because so very little is known about
Shakespeare that so many bulky biographies have been written of
him. Not a solitary letter of his is known to exist; not a play
comes down to us as he wrote it. A few documents written by other
men, and sometimes ending in a sprawling signature by Shakespeare,
which looks as if made by a hand accustomed to almost any labor
except that of the pen,—these are all we have to build upon. One
record, in dribbling Latin, relates to the christening of
“Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakspere”; a second, unreliable as a
village gossip, tells an anecdote of the same person's boyhood; a
third refers to Shakespeare as “one of his Majesty's poor players”;
a fourth records the burial of the poet's son Hamnet; a fifth
speaks of “Willi. Shakspere, gentleman”; a sixth is a bit of
wretched doggerel inscribed on the poet's tombstone; a seventh
tells us that in 1622, only six years after the poet's death, the
public had so little regard for his art that the council of his
native Stratford bribed his old company of players to go away from
the town without giving a performance.
It is from such dry and doubtful records that we must construct a
biography, supplementing the meager facts by liberal use of our
In the beautiful Warwickshire village of Stratford our poet was
born, probably in the month of April, in 1564. His mother, Mary
Arden, was a farmer's daughter; his father was a butcher and small
tradesman, who at one time held the office of high bailiff of the
village. There was a small grammar school in Stratford, and
Shakespeare may have attended it for a few years. When he was about
fourteen years old his father, who was often in lawsuits, was
imprisoned for debt, and the boy probably left school and went to
work. At eighteen he married Anne Hathaway, a peasant's daughter
eight years older than himself; at twenty-three, with his father
still in debt and his own family of three children to provide for,
Shakespeare took the footpath that led to the world beyond his
native village. [Footnote: Such is the prevalent opinion of
Shakespeare's early days; but we are dealing here with surmises,
not with established facts. There are scholars who allege that
Shakespeare's poverty is a myth; that his father was prosperous to
the end of his days; that he probably took the full course in Latin
and Greek at the Stratford school. Almost everything connected with
the poet's youth is still a matter of dispute.]
From Stratford he went to London, from solitude to crowds, from
beautiful rural scenes to dirty streets, from natural country
people to seekers after the bubble of fame or fortune. Why he went
is largely a matter of speculation. That he was looking for work;
that he followed a company of actors, as a boy follows a circus;
that he was driven out of Stratford after poaching on the game
preserves of Sir Thomas Lucy, whom he ridiculed in the plays of
Henry VI and Merry Wives,—these and other theories
are still debated. The most probable explanation of his departure
is that the stage lured him away, as the printing press called the
young Franklin from whatever else he undertook; for he seems to
have headed straight for the theater, and to have found his place
not by chance or calculation but by unerring instinct. England was
then, as we have noted, in danger of going stage mad, and
Shakespeare appeared to put method into the madness.
[ACTOR AND PLAYWRIGHT]
Beginning, undoubtedly, as an actor of small parts, he soon learned
the tricks of the stage and the humors of his audience. His first
dramatic work was to revise old plays, giving them some new twist
or setting to please the fickle public. Then he worked with other
playwrights, with Lyly and Peele perhaps, and the horrors of his
Titus Andronicus are sufficient evidence of his
collaboration with Marlowe. Finally he walked alone, having learned
his steps, and Romeo and Juliet and Midsummer Nights
Dream announced that a great poet and dramatist had suddenly
appeared in England.
[PERIOD OF GLOOM]
This experimental period of Shakespeare's life in London was
apparently a time of health, of joyousness, of enthusiasm which
comes with the successful use of one's powers. It was followed by a
period of gloom and sorrow, to which something of bitterness was
added. What occasioned the change is again a matter of speculation.
The first conjecture is that Shakespeare was a man to whom the low
ideals of the Elizabethan stage were intolerable, and this opinion
is strengthened after reading certain of Shakespeare's sonnets,
which reflect a loathing for the theaters and the mannerless crowds
that filled them. Another conjectural cause of his gloom was the
fate of certain noblemen with whom he was apparently on terms of
friendship, to whom he dedicated his poems, and from whom he
received substantial gifts of money. Of these powerful friends, the
Earl of Essex was beheaded for treason, Pembroke was banished, and
Southampton had gone to that grave of so many high hopes, the Tower
of London. Shakespeare may have shared the sorrow of these men, as
once he had shared their joy, and there are critics who assume that
he was personally implicated in the crazy attempt of Essex at
Whatever the cause of his grief, Shakespeare shows in his works
that he no longer looks on the world with the clear eyes of youth.
The great tragedies of this period, Lear, Macbeth,
Hamlet, Othello and Casar, all portray man not
as a being of purpose and high destiny, but as the sport of chance,
the helpless victim who cries out, as in Henry IV, for a
sight of the Book of Fate, wherein is shown
how chances mock,
And changes fill the cup of alteration
With divers liquors! O, if this were seen,
The happiest youth, viewing his progress through,
What perils past, what crosses to ensue,
Would shut the book, and sit him down and die.
[RETURN TO STRATFORD]
For such a terrible mood London offered no remedy. For a time
Shakespeare seems to have gloried in the city; then he wearied of
it, grew disgusted with the stage, and finally, after some
twenty-four years (cir. 1587-1611), sold his interest in the
theaters, shook the dust of London from his feet, and followed his
heart back to Stratford. There he adopted the ways of a country
gentleman, and there peace and serenity returned to him. He wrote
comparatively little after his retirement; but the few plays of
this last period, such as Cymbeline, Winter's Tale
and The Tempest, are the mellowest of all his works.
[SHAKESPEARE THE MAN]
After a brief period of leisure, Shakespeare died at his prime in
1616, and was buried in the parish church of Stratford. Of his
great works, now the admiration of the world, he thought so little
that he never collected or printed them. From these works many
attempts are made to determine the poet's character, beliefs,
philosophy,—a difficult matter, since the works portray many types
of character and philosophy equally well. The testimony of a few
contemporaries is more to the point, and from these we hear that
our poet was “very good company,” “of such civil demeanor,” “of
such happy industry,” “of such excellent fancy and brave notions,”
that he won in a somewhat brutal age the characteristic title of
“the gentle Shakespeare.”
THE DRAMAS OF SHAKESPEARE. In Shakespeare's day playwrights were producing various types of drama: the chronicle play, representing the glories of English history; the domestic drama, portraying homely scenes and common people; the court comedy (called also Lylian comedy, after the dramatist who developed it), abounding in wit and repartee for the delight of the upper classes; the melodrama, made up of sensational elements thrown together without much plot; the tragedy of blood, centering in one character who struggles amidst woes and horrors; romantic comedy and romantic tragedy, in which men and women were more or less idealized, and in which the elements of love, poetry, romance, youthful imagination and enthusiasm predominated.
It is interesting to note that Shakespeare essayed all these types—the chronicle play in Henry IV, the domestic drama in Merry Wives, the court comedy in Loves Labor's Lost, the melodrama in Richard III, the tragedy of blood in King Lear, romantic tragedy in Romeo and Juliet, romantic comedy in As You Like It—and that in each he showed such a mastery as to raise him far above all his contemporaries.
In his experimental period of work (cir. 1590-1595) Shakespeare began by revising old plays in conjunction with other actors. Henry VI is supposed to be an example of such tinkering work. The first part of this play (performed by Shakespeare's company in 1592) was in all probability an older work made over by Shakespeare and some unknown dramatist. From the fact that Joan of Arc appears in the play in two entirely different characters, and is even made to do battle at Rouen several years after her death, it is almost certain that Henry VI in its present form was composed at different times and by different authors.
Love's Labor's Lost is an example of the poet's first independent work. In this play such characters as Holofernes the schoolmaster, Costard the clown and Adriano the fantastic Spaniard are all plainly of the “stock” variety; various rimes and meters are used experimentally; blank verse is not mastered; and some of the songs, such as “On a Day,” are more or less artificial. Other plays of this early experimental period are Two Gentlemen of Verona and Richard III, the latter of which shows the influence and, possibly, the collaboration of Marlowe.
In the second period (cir. 1595-1600) Shakespeare constructed his plots with better skill, showed a greater mastery of blank verse, created some original characters, and especially did he give free rein to his romantic imagination. All doubt and experiment vanished in the confident enthusiasm of this period, as if Shakespeare felt within himself the coming of the sunrise in Romeo and Juliet:
Night's candles are burnt out, and jocund day
Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops.
Though some of his later plays are more carefully finished, in none of them are we so completely under the sway of poetry and romance as in these early works, written when Shakespeare first felt the thrill of mastery in his art.
In Midsummer Nights Dream, for example, the practical affairs of life seem to smother its poetic dreams; but note how the dream abides with us after the play is over. The spell of the enchanted forest is broken when the crowd invades its solitude; the witchery of moonlight fades into the light of common day; and then comes Theseus with his dogs to drive not the foxes but the fairies out of the landscape. As Chesterton points out, this masterful man, who has seen no fairies, proceeds to arrange matters in a practical way, with a wedding, a feast and a pantomime, as if these were the chief things of life. So, he thinks, the drama is ended; but after he and his noisy followers have departed to slumber, lo! enter once more Puck, Oberon, Titania and the whole train of fairies, to repeople the ancient world and dance to the music of Mendelssohn:
Hand in hand, with fairy grace,
While we sing, and bless this place.
So in The Merchant of Venice with its tragic figure of Shylock, who is hurried off the stage to make place for a final scene of love, moonlight and music; so in every other play of this period, the poetic dream of life triumphs over its practical realities.
During the third period, of maturity of power (cir. 1600-1610), Shakespeare was overshadowed by some personal grief or disappointment. He wrote his “farewell to mirth” in Twelfth Night, and seems to have reflected his own perturbed state in the lines which he attributes to Achilles in Troilus and Cressida:
My mind is troubled, like a fountain stirr'd,
And I myself see not the bottom of it.
His great tragedies belong to this period, tragedies which reveal increased dramatic power in Shakespeare, but also his loss of hope, his horrible conviction that man is not a free being but a puppet blown about by every wind of fate or circumstance. In Hamlet great purposes wait upon a feeble will, and the strongest purpose may be either wrecked or consummated by a trifle. The whole conception of humanity in this play suggests a clock, of which, if but one small wheel is touched, all the rest are thrown into confusion. In Macbeth a man of courage and vaulting ambition turns coward or traitor at the appearance of a ghost, at the gibber of witches, at the whisper of conscience, at the taunts of his wife. In King Lear a monarch of high disposition drags himself and others down to destruction, not at the stern command of fate, but at the mere suggestion of foolishness. In Othello love, faith, duty, the fidelity of a brave man, the loyalty of a pure woman,—all are blasted, wrecked, dishonored by a mere breath of suspicion blown by a villain.
In his final period, of leisurely experiment (cir. 1610-1616), Shakespeare seems to have recovered in Stratford the cheerfulness that he had lost in London. He did little work during this period, but that little is of rare charm and sweetness. He no longer portrayed human life as a comedy of errors or a tragedy of weakness but as a glowing romance, as if the mellow autumn of his own life had tinged all the world with its own golden hues. With the exception of As You Like It (written in the second period), in which brotherhood is pictured as the end of life, and love as its unfailing guide, it is doubtful if any of the earlier plays leaves such a wholesome impression as The Winter's Tale or The Tempest, which were probably the last of the poet's works.
Following is a list of Shakespeare's thirty-four plays (or thirty-seven, counting the different parts of Henry IV and Henry VI) arranged according to the periods in which they were probably written. The dates are approximate, not exact, and the chronological order is open to question:
FIRST PERIOD, EARLY EXPERIMENT (1590-1595). Titus Andronicus, Henry VI, Love's Labor's Lost, Comedy of Errors, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Richard III, Richard II, King John.
SECOND PERIOD, DEVELOPMENT (1595-1600). Romeo and Juliet, Midsummer Night's Dream, Merchant of Venice, Henry IV, Henry V, Merry Wives of Windsor, Much Ado About Nothing,As You Like It.
THIRD PERIOD, MATURITY AND TROUBLE (1600-1610). Twelfth Night, Taming of the Shrew, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida, All's Well that Ends Well, Measure for Measure,Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, Timon of Athens.
FOURTH PERIOD, LATER EXPERIMENT (1610-1616). Coriolanus, Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, The Tempest, Henry VIII (left unfinished, completed probably by Fletcher).
[TRAGEDY AND COMEDY]
The most convenient arrangement of these plays appears in the First Folio (1623) [Footnote: This was the first edition of Shakespeare's plays. It was prepared seven years after the poet's death by two of his fellow actors, Heminge and Condell. It contained all the plays now attributed to Shakespeare with the exception of Pericles.] where they are grouped in three classes called tragedies, comedies and historical plays. The tragedy is a drama in which the characters are the victims of unhappy passions, or are involved in desperate circumstances. The style is grave and dignified, the movement stately; the ending is disastrous to individuals, but illustrates the triumph of a moral principle. These rules of true tragedy are repeatedly set aside by Shakespeare, who introduces elements of buffoonery, and who contrives an ending that may stand for the triumph of a principle but that is quite likely to be the result of accident or madness. His best tragedies are Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, King Lear and Othello.
Comedy is a type of drama in which the elements of fun and humor predominate. The style is gay; the action abounds in unexpected incidents; the ending brings ridicule or punishment to the villains in the plot, and satisfaction to all worthy characters. Among the best of Shakespeare's comedies, in which he is apt to introduce serious or tragic elements, are As You Like It, Merchant of Venice, Midsummer Night's Dream, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest.
Strictly speaking there are only two dramatic types, all others, such as farce, melodrama, tragi-comedy, lyric drama, or opera, and chronicle play, being modifications of comedy or tragedy. The historical play, to which Elizabethans were devoted, aimed to present great scenes or characters from a past age, and were generally made up of both tragic and comic elements. The best of Shakespeare's historical plays areJulius Casar, Henry IV, Henry V, Richard III and Coriolanus.
[WHAT TO READ]
There is no better way to feel the power of Shakespeare than to read in succession three different types of plays, such as the comedy of As You Like It, the tragedy of Macbeth and the historical play ofJulius Casar. Another excellent trio is The Merchant of Venice, Romeo and Juliet and Henry IV; and the reading of these typical plays might well be concluded with The Tempest, which was probably Shakespeare's last word to his Elizabethan audience.
THE QUALITY OF SHAKESPEARE. As the thousand details of a Gothic cathedral receive character and meaning from its towering spire, so all the works of Shakespeare are dominated by his imagination. That imagination of his was both sympathetic and creative. It was sympathetic in that it understood without conscious effort all kinds of men, from clowns to kings, and all human emotions that lie between the extremes of joy and sorrow; it was creative in that, from any given emotion or motive, it could form a human character who should be completely governed by that motive. Ambition in Macbeth, pride in Coriolanus, wit in Mercutio, broad humor in Falstaff, indecision in Hamlet, pure fancy in Ariel, brutality in Richard, a passionate love in Juliet, a merry love in Rosalind, an ideal love in Perdita,—such characters reveal Shakespeare's power to create living men and women from a single motive or emotion.
Or take a single play, Othello, and disregarding all minor characters, fix attention on the pure devotion of Desdemona, the jealousy of Othello, the villainy of Iago. The genius that in a single hour can make us understand these contrasting characters as if we had met them in the flesh, and make our hearts ache as we enter into their joy, their anguish, their dishonor, is beyond all ordinary standards of measurement. And Othello must be multiplied many times before we reach the limit of Shakespeare's creative imagination. He is like the genii of the Arabian Nights, who produce new marvels while we wonder at the old.
Such an overpowering imagination must have created wildly, fancifully, had it not been guided by other qualities: by an observation almost as keen as that of Chaucer, and by the saving grace of humor. We need only mention the latter qualities, for if the reader will examine any great play of Shakespeare, he will surely find them in evidence: the observation keeping the characters of the poet's imagination true to the world of men and women, and the humor preventing some scene of terror or despair from overwhelming us by its terrible reality.
In view of these and other qualities it has become almost a fashion to speak of the “perfection” of Shakespeare's art; but in truth no word could be more out of place in such a connection. As Ben Jonson wrote in his Timber:
“I remember the players have often mentioned it as an honor to
Shakespeare that in his writing, whatever he penned, he never
blotted out a line. My answer hath been, 'Would he had blotted a
Even in his best work Shakespeare has more faults than any other poet of England. He is in turn careless, extravagant, profuse, tedious, sensational; his wit grows stale or coarse; his patriotism turns to bombast; he mars even such pathetic scenes as the burial of Ophelia by buffoonery and brawling; and all to please a public that was given to bull-baiting.
These certainly are imperfections; yet the astonishing thing is that they pass almost unnoticed in Shakespeare. He reflected his age, the evil and the good of it, just as it appeared to him; and the splendor of his representation is such that even his faults have their proper place, like shadows in a sunlit landscape.
[HIS VIEW OF LIFE]
Of Shakespeare's philosophy we may say that it reflected equally well the views of his hearers and of the hundred characters whom he created for their pleasure. Of his personal views it is impossible to say more than this, with truth: that he seems to have been in full sympathy with the older writers whose stories he used as the sources of his drama. [Footnote: The chief sources of Shakespeare's plays are: (1) Older plays, from which he made half of his dramas, such as Richard III, Hamlet, King John. (2) Holinshed's Chronicles, from which he obtained material for his English historical plays. (3) Plutarch's Lives, translated by North, which furnished him material for Caesar, Coriolanus, Antony and Cleopatra. (4) French, Italian and Spanish romances, in translations, from which he obtained the stories of The Merchant of Venice, Othello, Twelfth Night and As You Like It.] Now these stories commonly reflected three things besides the main narrative: a problem, its solution, and the consequent moral or lesson. The problem was a form of evil; its solution depended on goodness in some form; the moral was that goodness triumphs finally and inevitably over evil.
Many such stories were cherished by the Elizabethans, the old tale of “Gammelyn” for example (from which came As You Like It); and just as in our own day popular novels are dramatized, so three centuries ago audiences demanded to see familiar stories in vigorous action. That is why Shakespeare held to the old tales, and pleased his audience, instead of inventing new plots. But however much he changed the characters or the action of the story, he remained always true to the old moral:
That goodness is the rule of life,
And its glory and its triumph.
Shakespeare's women are his finest characters, and he often portrays the love of a noble woman as triumphing over the sin or weakness of men. He has little regard for abnormal or degenerate types, such as appear in the later Elizabethan drama; he prefers vigorous men and pure women, precisely as the old story-tellers did; and if Richard or some other villain overruns his stage for an hour, such men are finally overwhelmed by the very evil which they had planned for others. If they drag the innocent down to a common destruction, these pure characters never seem to us to perish; they live forever in our thought as the true emblems of humanity.
It was Charles Lamb who referred to a copy of Shakespeare's plays as “this manly book.” The expression is a good one, and epitomizes the judgment of a world which has found that, though Shakespeare introduces evil or vulgar elements into his plays, his emphasis is always upon the right man and the right action. This may seem a trite thing to say in praise of a great genius; but when you reflect that Shakespeare is read throughout the civilized world, the simple fact that the splendor of his poetry is balanced by the rightness of his message becomes significant and impressive. It speaks not only for Shakespeare but for the moral quality of the multitudes who acknowledge his mastery. Wherever his plays are read, on land or sea, in the crowded cities of men or the far silent places of the earth, there the solitary man finds himself face to face with the unchanging ideals of his race, with honor, duty, courtesy, and the moral imperative,
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
* * * * *
THE ELIZABETHAN DRAMA AFTER SHAKESPEARE
The drama began to decline during Shakespeare's lifetime. Even before his retirement to Stratford other popular dramatists appeared who catered to a vulgar taste by introducing more sensational elements into the stage spectacle. In consequence the drama degenerated so rapidly that in 1642, only twenty-six years after the master dramatist had passed away, Parliament closed the theaters as evil and degrading places. This closing is charged to the zeal of the Puritans, who were rapidly rising into power, and the charge is probably well founded. So also was the Puritan zeal. One who was compelled to read the plays of the period, to say nothing of witnessing them, must thank these stern old Roundheads for their insistence on public decency and morality. In the drama of all ages there seems to be a terrible fatality which turns the stage first to levity, then to wickedness, and which sooner or later calls for reformation.
Among those who played their parts in the rise and fall of the drama, the chief names are Jonson, Beaumont, Fletcher, Middleton, Webster, Heywood, Dekker, Massinger, Ford and Shirley. Concerning the work of these dramatists there is wide diversity of opinion. Lamb regards them, Beaumont and Fletcher especially, as “an inferior sort of Sidneys and Shakespeares.” Landor writes of them poetically:
They stood around
The throne of Shakespeare, sturdy but unclean.
Lowell finds some small things to praise in a large collection of their plays. Hazlitt regards them as “a race of giants, a common and noble brood, of whom Shakespeare was simply the tallest.” Dyce, who had an extraordinary knowledge of all these dramatists, regards such praise as absurd, saying that “Shakespeare is not only immeasurably superior to the dramatists of his time, but is utterly unlike them in almost every respect.”
We shall not attempt to decide where such doctors disagree. It may not be amiss, however, to record this personal opinion: that these playwrights added little to the drama and still less to literature, and that it is hardly worth while to search out their good passages amid a welter of repulsive details. If they are to be read at all, the student will find enough of their work for comparison with the Shakespearean drama in a book of selections, such as Lamb's Specimens of English Dramatic Poetry or Thayer's The Best Elizabethan Plays.
BEN JONSON (1573?-1637). The greatest figure among these dramatists was Jonson,—“O rare Ben Jonson” as his epitaph describes him, “O rough Ben Jonson” as he was known to the playwrights with whom he waged literary warfare. His first notable play, Every Man in His Humour, satirizing the fads or humors of London, was acted by Shakespeare's company, and Shakespeare played one of the parts. Then Jonson fell out with his fellow actors, and wrote The Poetaster (acted by a rival company) to ridicule them and their work. Shakespeare was silent, but the cudgels were taken up by Marston and Dekker, the latter of whom wrote, among other and better plays, Satiromastix, which was played by Shakespeare's company as a counter attack on Jonson.
The value of Jonson's plays is that they give us vivid pictures of Elizabethan society, its speech, fashions, amusements, such as no other dramatist has drawn. Shakespeare pictures men and women as they might be in any age; but Jonson is content to picture the men and women of London as they appeared superficially in the year 1600. His chief comedies, which satirize the shams of his age, are: Volpone, or the Fox, a merciless exposure of greed and avarice; The Alchemist, a study of quackery as it was practiced in Elizabethan days; Bartholomew Fair, a riot of folly; and Epicoene, or the Silent Woman, which would now be called a roaring farce. His chief tragedies are Sejanus and Catiline.
In later life Jonson was appointed poet laureate, and wrote many masques, such as the Masque of Beauty and the unfinished Sad Shepherd. These and a few lyrics, such as the “Triumph of Charis" and the song beginning, “Drink to me only with thine eyes,” are the pleasantest of Jonson's works. At the end he abandoned the drama, as Shakespeare had done, and lashed it as severely as any Puritan in the ode beginning, “Come leave the loathed stage.”
* * * * *
THE PROSE WRITERS
Unless one have antiquarian tastes, there is little in Elizabethan prose to reward the reader. Strange to say, the most tedious part of it was written by literary men in what was supposed to be a very fine style; while the small part that still attracts us (such as Bacon's Essays or Hakluyt's Voyages) was mostly written by practical men with no thought for literary effect.
This curious result came about in the following way. In the sixteenth century poetry was old, but English prose was new; for in the two centuries that had elapsed since Mandeville wrote his Travels, Malory'sMorte d' Arthur (1475) and Ascham's Scholemaster (1563) are about the only two books that can be said to have a prose style. Then, just as the Elizabethans were turning to literature, John Lyly appeared with his Euphues, or the Anatomy of Wit (1578), an alleged novel made up of rambling conversations upon love, education, fashion,—everything that came into the author's head. The style was involved, artificial, tortured; it was loaded with conceits, antitheses and decorations:
“I perceive, Camilla, that be your cloth never so bad it will take
some colour, and your cause never so false it will bear some show
of probability; wherein you manifest the right nature of a woman,
who, having no way to win, thinketh to overcome with words.... Take
heed, Camilla, that seeking all the wood for a straight stick you
choose not at the last a crooked staff, or prescribing a good
counsel to others thou thyself follow the worst much like to Chius,
who selling the best wine to others drank himself of the lees.”
[THE FAD OF EUPHUISM]
This “high fantastical” style, ever since called euphuistic, created a sensation. The age was given over to extravagance and the artificial elegance of Euphues seemed to match the other fashions. Just as Elizabethan men and women began to wear grotesque ruffs about their necks as soon as they learned the art of starching from the Dutch, so now they began to decorate their writing with the conceits of Lyly. [Footnote: Lyly did not invent the fashion; he carried to an extreme a tendency towards artificial writing which was prevalent in England and on the Continent. As is often the case, it was the extreme of fashion that became fashionable.] Only a year after Euphues appeared, Spenser published The Shepherd's Calendar, and his prose notes show how quickly the style, like a bad habit, had taken possession of the literary world. Shakespeare ridicules the fashion in the character of Holofernes, in Love's Labor's Lost, yet he follows it as slavishly as the rest. He could write good prose when he would, as is shown by a part of Hamlet's speech; but as a rule he makes his characters speak as if the art of prose were like walking a tight rope, which must be done with a balancing pole and some contortions. The scholars who produced the translation of the Scriptures known as the Authorized Version could certainly write well; yet if you examine their Dedication, in which, uninfluenced by the noble sincerity of the Bible's style, they were free to follow the fashion, you may find there the two faults of Elizabethan prose; namely, the habit of servile flattery and the sham of euphuism.
Among prose writers of the period the name that appears most frequently is that of Philip Sidney (1554-1586). He wrote one of our first critical essays, An Apologie for Poetrie (cir. 1581), the spirit of which may be judged from the following:
“Nowe therein of all sciences ... is our poet the monarch. For he
dooth not only show the way but giveth so sweete a prospect into
the way as will intice any man to enter into it. Nay, he dooth, as
if your journey should be through a faire vineyard, at the first
give you a cluster of grapes, that, full of that taste, you may
long to passe further. He beginneth not with obscure definitions,
which must blur the margent with interpretations, and load the
memory with doubtfulnesse; but hee cometh to you with words set in
delightfull proportion, either accompanied with or prepared for the
well enchaunting skill of musicke; and with a tale, forsooth, he
cometh unto you,—with a tale which holdeth children from play and
old men from the chimney corner.”
Sidney wrote also the pastoral romance Arcadia which was famous in its day, and in which the curious reader may find an occasional good passage, such as the prayer to a heathen god, “O All-seeing Light,”—a prayer that became historic and deeply pathetic when King Charles repeated it, facing death on the scaffold. That was in 1649, more than half a century after Arcadia was written:
“O all-seeing Light, and eternal Life of all things, to whom
nothing is either so great that it may resist or so small that it
is contemned, look upon my miserie with thine eye of mercie, and
let thine infinite power vouchsafe to limite out some proportion of
deliverance unto me, as to thee shall seem most convenient. Let not
injurie, O Lord, triumphe over me, and let my faults by thy hands
be corrected, and make not mine unjuste enemie the minister of thy
justice. But yet, my God, if in thy wisdome this be the aptest
chastisement for my inexcusable follie; if this low bondage be
fittest for my over-hie desires; if the pride of my not-inough
humble hearte be thus to be broken, O Lord, I yeeld unto thy will,
and joyfully embrace what sorrow thou wilt have me suffer.”
[THE KING JAMES BIBLE]
The finest example of the prose of the period is the King James or Authorized Version of the Bible, which appeared in 1611. This translation was so much influenced by the earlier work of Wyclif, Tyndale, and many others, that its style cannot properly be called Elizabethan or Jacobean; it is rather an epitome of English at its best in the two centuries between Chaucer and Shakespeare. The forty-seven scholars who prepared this translation aimed at a faithful rendering of the Book which, aside from its spiritual teaching, contains some of the noblest examples of style in the whole range of human literature: the elemental simplicity of the Books of Moses, the glowing poetry of Job and the Psalms, the sublime imagery of Isaiah, the exquisite tenderness of the Parables, the forged and tempered argument of the Epistles, the gorgeous coloring of the Apocalypse. All these elements entered in some degree into the translation of 1611, and the result was a work of such beauty, strength and simplicity that it remained a standard of English prose for more than three centuries. It has not only been a model for our best writers; it has pervaded all the minor literature of the nation, and profoundly influenced the thought and the expression of the whole English-speaking world.
* * * * *
FRANCIS BACON (1561-1626)
“My name and memory I leave to foreign nations, and to mine own country after some time is passed over,” said Bacon in his will. That reference to the future meant, not that England might learn to forget and forgive (for Bacon was not greatly troubled by his disgrace), but that she might learn to appreciate his Instauratio Magna. In the same document the philosopher left magnificent bequests for various purposes, but when these were claimed by the beneficiaries it was learned that the debts of the estate were three times the assets. This high-sounding will is an epitome of Bacon's life and work.
LIFE. Bacon belongs with Sidney and Raleigh in that group of
Elizabethans who aimed to be men of affairs, politicians,
reformers, explorers, rather than writers of prose or poetry. He
was of noble birth, and from an early age was attached to
Elizabeth's court. There he expected rapid advancement, but the
queen and his uncle (Lord Burghley) were both a little suspicious
of the young man who, as he said, had “taken all knowledge for his
Failing to advance by favor, Bacon studied law and entered
Parliament, where he rose rapidly to leadership. Ben Jonson writes
of him, in that not very reliable collection of opinions called
“There happened in my time one noble speaker who was full
of gravity in his speaking.... No man ever spake more
neatly, more pressly, more weightily, or suffered less
emptiness, less idleness, in what he uttered.... The fear
of every man that heard him was lest he should make an
When Elizabeth died, Bacon saw his way open. He offered his
services to the royal favorite, Buckingham, and was soon in the
good graces of King James. He was made Baron Verulam and Viscount
St. Albans; he married a rich wife; he rose rapidly from one
political honor to another, until at sixty he was Lord High
Chancellor of England. So his threefold ambition for position,
wealth and power was realized. It was while he held the highest
state office that he published his Novum Organum, which
established his reputation as “the first philosopher in Europe.”
That was in 1620, the year when a handful of Pilgrims sailed away
unnoticed on one of the world's momentous voyages.
After four years of power Bacon, who had been engaged with
Buckingham in selling monopolies, and in other schemes to be rich
at the public expense, was brought to task by Parliament. He was
accused of receiving bribes, confessed his guilt (it is said to
shield the king and Buckingham, who had shared the booty), was
fined, imprisoned, banished from court, and forbidden to hold
public office again. All these punishments except the last were
remitted by King James, to whom Bacon had been a useful tool. His
last few years were spent in scientific study at Gorhambury, where
he lived proudly, keeping up the appearance of his former grandeur,
until his death in 1626.
Such a sketch seems a cold thing, but there is little of divine
fire or human warmth in Bacon to kindle one's enthusiasm. His
obituary might well be the final word of his essay “Of Wisdom for a
“Whereas they have all their time sacrificed to themselves,
they become in the end sacrifices to the inconstancy of
fortune, whose wings they thought by their self-wisdom to
Ben Jonson had a different and, possibly, a more just opinion. In
the work from which we have quoted he says:
“My conceit of his person was never increased towards him
by his place or honours; but I have and do reverence him
for his greatness that was only proper to himself, in that
he seemed to me ever by his work one of the greatest men,
and most worthy of admiration, that had been in many ages.
In his adversity I ever prayed that God would give him
strength; for greatness he could not want.”
WORKS OF BACON. The Essays of Bacon are so highly esteemed that the critic Hallam declares it would be “derogatory to a man of the slightest claim to polite letters” to be unacquainted with them. His first venture was a tiny volume called Essays, Religious Meditations, Places of Persuasion and Dissuasion (1597). This was modeled upon a French work by Montaigne (Essais, 1580) and was considered of small consequence by the author. As time went on, and his ambitious works were overlooked in favor of his sketches, he paid more attention to the latter, revising and enlarging his work until the final edition of fifty-eight essays appeared in 1625. Then it was that Bacon wrote, “I do now publish my Essays, which of all my works have been most current; for that, as it seems, they come home to men's business and bosoms.”
[QUALITY OF THE ESSAYS]
The spirit of these works may be judged by the essay “Of Friendship.” This promises well, for near the beginning we read, “A crowd is not company, and faces are but a gallery of pictures, and talking is but a tinkling cymbal where there is no love.” Excellent! As we read on, however, we find nothing of the love that beareth all things for a friend's sake. We are not even encouraged to be friendly, but rather to cultivate the friendship of other men for the following advantages: that a friend is useful in saving us from solitude; that he may increase our joy or diminish our trouble; that he gives us good counsel; that he can finish our work or take care of our children, if need be; and finally, that he can spare our modesty while trumpeting our virtues:
“How many things are there which a man cannot, with any face or
comeliness, say or do himself! A man can scarce allege his own
merits with modesty, much less extol them; a man cannot sometimes
brook to supplicate or beg; and a number of the like. But all these
things are graceful in a friend's mouth, which are blushing in a
In old Arabic manuscripts one frequently finds a record having the appearance of truth; but at the very end, in parenthesis, one reads, “This is all a lie,” or “This was my thought when I was sick,” or some other enlightening climax. Bacon's essay “Of Friendship” might be more in accord with the verities if it had a final note to the effect that the man who cultivates friendship in the Baconian way will never have or deserve a friend in the world.
So with many other Baconian essays: with “Love” for example, in which we are told that it is impossible for a man to love and be wise; or with “Negotiations,” which informs us that, unless a man intends to use his letter to justify himself (lo! the politician), it is better to deal by speech than by writing; for a man can “disavow or expound” his speech, but his written word may be used against him.
[BACON'S VIEW OF LIFE]
To some men, to most men, life offers a problem to be solved by standards that are eternally right; to others life is a game, the object is to win, and the rules may be manipulated to one's own advantage. Bacon's moral philosophy was that of the gamester; his leading motive was self-interest; so when he wrote of love or friendship or any other noble sentiment he was dealing with matters of which he had no knowledge. The best he could offer was a “counsel of prudence,” and many will sympathize with John Wesley, who declared that worldly prudence is a quality from which an honest man should pray God to be delivered.
[WHAT TO READ]
It is only when Bacon deals with practical matters, leaving the high places of life, where he is a stranger, to write of “Discourse” or “Gardens” or “Seeming Wise” that his essays begin to strike home by their vigor and vitality. Though seldom profound or sympathetic, they are notable for their keen observation and shrewd judgment of the ambitious world in which the author himself lived. Among those that are best worth reading are “Studies,” “Wisdom for a Man's Self,” “Riches,” “Great Place,” “Atheism,” and “Travel.”
The style of these essays is in refreshing contrast to most Elizabethan prose, to the sonorous periods of Hooker, to the ramblings of Sidney, to the conceits of Lyly and Shakespeare. The sentences are mostly short, clear, simple; and so much meaning is crystallized in them that they overshadow even the “Poor Richard” maxims of Franklin, the man who had a genius for packing worldly wisdom into a convenient nutshell.
Other works of Bacon are seldom read, and may be passed over lightly. We mention only, as indicative of his wide range, his History of Henry VII, his Utopian romance The New Atlantis, his Advancement of Learning and his Novum Organum. The last two works, one in English, the other in Latin, were parts of the Instauratio Magna, or The Great Institution of True Philosophy, a colossal work which Bacon did not finish, which he never even outlined very clearly.
The aim of the Instauratio was, first, to sweep away ancient philosophy and the classic education of the universities; and second, to substitute a scheme of scientific study to the end of discovering and utilizing the powers of nature. It gave Bacon his reputation (in Germany especially) of a great philosopher and scientist, and it is true that his vision of vast discoveries has influenced the thought of the world; but to read any part of his great work is to meet a mind that seems ingenious rather than philosophical, and fanciful rather than scientific. He had what his learned contemporary Peter Heylyn termed “a chymical brain,” a brain that was forever busy with new theories; and the leading theory was that some lucky man would discover a key or philosopher's stone or magic sesame that must straightway unlock all the secrets of nature.
Meanwhile the real scientists of his age were discovering secrets in the only sure way, of hard, self-denying work. Gilbert was studying magnetism, Harvey discovering the circulation of the blood, Kepler determining the laws that govern the planets' motions, Napier inventing logarithms, and Galileo standing in ecstasy beneath the first telescope ever pointed at the stars of heaven.
[HIS VAST PLANS]
Of the work of these scientific heroes Bacon had little knowledge, and for their plodding methods he had no sympathy. He was Viscount, Lord Chancellor, “high-browed Verulam,” and his heaven-scalingInstauratio which, as he said, was “for the glory of the Creator and for the relief of man's estate” must have something stupendous, Elizabethan, about it, like the victory over the Armada. In his plans there was always an impression of vastness; his miscellaneous works were like the strange maps that geographers made when the wonders of a new world opened upon their vision. Though he never made an important discovery, his conviction that knowledge is power and that there are no metes or bounds to knowledge, his belief that the mighty forces of nature are waiting to do man's bidding, his thought of ships that navigate the air as easily as the sea,—all this Baconian dream of mental empire inspired the scientific world for three centuries. It was as thoroughly Elizabethan in its way as the voyage of Drake or the plays of Shakespeare.
* * * * *
SUMMARY. The most remarkable feature of the Elizabethan age was its
patriotic enthusiasm. This enthusiasm found its best expression on
the stage, in the portrayal of life in vigorous action; and dramas
were produced in such number and of such quality that the whole
period is sometimes called the age of the play. It was a time of
poetry rather than of prose, and nearly all of the poetry is
characterized by its emotional quality, by youthful freshness of
feeling, by quickened imagination, and by an extravagance of
language which overflows, even in Shakespeare, in a kind of
Our study of the literature of the age includes: (1) The outburst
of lyric poetry. (2) The life and works of Spenser, second in time
of the great English poets. (3) A review of the long history of the
drama, from the earliest church spectacle, through miracle,
morality, interlude, pageant and masque to the Elizabethan drama.
(4) The immediate forerunners of Shakespeare, of whom the most
notable was Marlowe. (5) The life and work of Shakespeare. (6) Ben
Jonson, the successors of Shakespeare, and the rapid decline of the
drama. (7) Elizabethan prose; the appearance of euphuism; Sidney's
Apologie for Poetrie; the Authorized Version of the
Scriptures; and the life and work of Francis Bacon.
SELECTIONS FOR READING. Selected lyrics in Manly, English Poetry;
Newcomer, Twelve Centuries of English Poetry and Prose; Palgrave,
Golden Treasury; Schilling, Elizabethan Lyrics; Ward, English
Spenser. Selected poems in Temple Classics, Cambridge Poets
Series. Selections from The Faery Queen in Standard English
Classics and other school editions. (See Texts, in General
Early Drama. A miracle play, such as Noah, may be read in
Manly, Specimens of Pre-Shakespearean Drama (Ginn and Company).
Marlowe's plays in Everyman's Library; his Edward II in Holt's
English Readings; his Faustus in Temple Dramatists, and in Mermaid
Shakespeare. Several editions of Shakespeare's plays, such
as the revised Hudson (Ginn and Company) and the Neilson (Scott)
are available. Single plays, such as Julius Caesar, Merchant of
Venice, Macbeth, As You Like It, are edited for class use in
Standard English Classics, Lake Classics, and various other school
series. The Sonnets in Athenaum Press Series.
Ben Jonson. The Alchemist in Cambridge Poets Series; also in
Thayer, Best Elizabethan Plays (Ginn and Company), which includes
in one volume plays by Marlowe, Jonson, Webster, Beaumont and
Prose Writers. Selections from Bacon's Essays in Riverside
Literature, or Maynard's English Classkcs. The Essays complete in
Everyman's Library. Selections from Hooker, Sidney and Lyly in
Manly, English Prose, or Craik, English Prose. Ampler selections in
Garnett, English Prose from Elizabeth to Victoria (Ginn and
Company), which contains in one volume typical works of 33 prose
writers from Lyly to Carlyle. Hakluyt's Voyages in Everyman's
HISTORY. Creighton, The Age of Elizabeth; Winter,
Shakespeare's England; Goadby, The England of Shakespeare;
Harrison, Elizabethan England; Spedding, Francis Bacon and his
Times; Lee, Great Englishmen of the Sixteenth Century; Payne,
Voyages of Elizabethan Seamen.
LITERATURE. Saintsbury, Short History of Elizabethan
Literature; Seccombe and Allen, The Age of Shakespeare; Whipple,
Literature of the Age of Elizabeth; Schilling, Elizabethan Lyrics;
Lee, Elizabethan Sonnets; Sheavyn, Literary Profession in the
Spenser. Life, by Church (English Men of Letters Series).
Carpenter, Outline Guide to the Study of Spenser; Craik, Spenser
and his Times. Essays, by Lowell, in Among My Books; by Dowden, in
Transcripts and Studies; by Hazlitt, in Lectures on the English
Poets; by Leigh Hunt, in Imagination and Fancy.
The Drama. Gayley, Plays of Our Forefathers (a study of the
early drama); Evans, English Masques; Bates, The English Religious
Drama; Schilling, The Elizabethan Drama; Symonds, Shakespeare's
Predecessors in the English Drama; Boas, Shakespeare and his
Predecessors; Collier, History of English Dramatic Poetry; Ward,
English Dramatic Literature; Chambers, The Medieval Stage; Pollard,
English Miracle Plays, Moralities and Interludes.
Shakespeare. Life, by Raleigh (E. M. of L.), by Lee, by
Halliwell-Phillipps, by Brandes. Dowden, A Shakespeare Primer;
Dowden, Shakespeare: a Critical Study of his Mind and Art; Baker,
Development of Shakespeare as a Dramatist.
Other Dramatists. Lowell, Old English Dramatists; Lamb,
Specimens of English Dramatic Poets; Fleay, Biographical Chronicle
of the English Drama; Ingram, Christopher Marlowe.
Prose Writers. Church, Life of Bacon (E. M. of L.); Nicol,
Bacon's Life and Philosophy; Macaulay, Essay on Bacon. Symonds,
Life of Sidney (E. M. of L.); Bourne, Life of Sidney (Heroes of the
Nations Series). Stebbing, Life of Raleigh.
FICTION AND POETRY. Kingsley, Westward Ho; Black, Judith
Shakespeare; Scott, Kenilworth; Schiller, Maria Stuart; Alfred
Noyes, Drake; Bates and Coman, English History Told by English