But the artifices and restraint of the sonnet clipped the wings of fancy, and Shakespeare must have rejoiced in the fluent freedom of blank verse when, still young and ardent, he let himself go in one of the great love poems of all time. The story of Romeo and Juliet came to England from the novelle of Masuccio and Bandello; Arthur Brooke rephrased it in narrative verse (1562); and Shakespeare, following Brooke and perhaps an earlier play on the subject, staged his Romeo and Juliet about 1595. The style is cloyed with conceits that may have clung to his pen from his sonneteering, the metaphors run wild, Romeo is weakly drawn beside the effervescent Mercutio, and the denouement is a concatenation of absurdities. But who that remembers youth, or has a dream left in his soul, can hear that honeyed music of romance without jettisoning all canons of credibility and rising breathless at the poet’s bidding into this world of precipitate ardor, trembling solicitude, and melodious death?
Almost yearly now Shakespeare won a dramatic victory. On June 7, 1594, Elizabeth’s Jewish physician, Rodrigo López, was executed on the charge of having accepted a bribe to poison the Queen. The evidence was inconclusive, and Elizabeth long hesitated to sign the death warrant; but the London populace took his guilt for granted, and anti-Semitism ran hot in the pubs.11 Possibly Shakespeare was moved or commissioned to tap this mood by writing The Merchant of Venice (1596?). He shared in some measure the feelings of his audience;I he allowed Shylock to be represented as a comic character in slovenly dress and with a vast artificial nose; he rivaled Marlowe in bringing out the moneylender’s hatred and greed; but he gave Shylock some lovable qualities that must have made the injudicious grieve, and he put into his mouth so bold a statement of the case for the Jews that competent critics still debate whether Shylock is pictured as more sinned against than sinning.12 Here, above all, Shakespeare showed his skill in weaving into one harmonious tapestry divers threads of story coming from the Orient and Italy; and he made the converted Jessica the recipient of such moonstruck poetry as only a spirit of supreme sensitivity could have conceived.
For five years Shakespeare gave himself chiefly to comedy; perhaps he had learned that our harassed species reserves its richest rewards for those who can distract it with laughter or imagination. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is powerful nonsense, only redeemed by Mendelssohn; All’s Well That Ends Well is not salvaged by Helena; Much Ado about Nothing lives up to its title; Twelfth Night is bearable only because Viola makes a very handsome boy; and The Taming of the Shrew is boisterously incredible; shrews are never tamed. All these plays were potboilers, sops to the groundlings, ways of keeping the herd in the pit and the wolf from the door.
But with the two parts of Henry IV (1597–98) the great magician rose again to mastery, and mingled clowns and princes—Falstaff and Pistol, Hotspur and Prince Hal—with a success that would have given Sidney pause. London relished this serving of royal history garnished with rogues and tarts. Shakespeare carried on with Henry V (1599), at once moving and amusing his audience with dying Falstaff’s “babbling o’ green fields,” rousing it with the fanfare of Agincourt, and delighting it with the bilingual courtship of Princess Kate by the invincible King. If we may believe Rowe, the Queen was not content to let Falstaff rest; she bade his creator revive him and show him in love;13 and John Dennis (1702), relating the same story, adds that Elizabeth desired the miracle to be accomplished in two weeks. If all this be true, The Merry Wives of Windsor was an astonishing tour de farce; for though the play is noisy with slapstick and punctured with puns, it has Falstaff at the height of his verve, until he is cast into the river in a hamper of wash. The Queen, we are told, was pleased.
It is startling to find a dramatist capable of producing in one season (1599–1600?) such nugatory nonsense as this and then so ethereal an idyl as As You Like It. Perhaps because it took a lead from Lodge’s novel Rosalynde (1590), the play has a music of refinement in it—still hobbled with arid badinage, but tender and delicate in feeling, gay and elegant in speech. What pretty friendship is here between Celia and Rosalind—and Orlando carving Rosalind’s name into the bark of trees, “hanging odes upon hawthorns and elegies on brambles”; what a Fortunatus’ fund of eloquence spilling immortal phrases on every page—and songs that have been welcome on a million lips: “Under the greenwood tree,” “Blow, blow, thou winter wind,” “It was a lover and his lass.” The whole outpour is such delectable foolery and sentiment as cannot be matched in any literature.
But amid this cornucopia of sweets Monsieur Melancholy Jaques mingles some bitter fruit, announcing that life’s “wide and universal theatre presents more woeful pageants than do the scene we play” upon the boards, that nothing is certain except death, usually after a toothless, eyeless, tasteless old age.
And so, from hour to hour we ripe and ripe,
And then from hour to hour we rot and rot,
And thereby hangs a tale.14
So the Swan of Avon warned us that As You Like It was the swan song of his gaiety, and that thereafter, till further notice, he proposed to flay the surface of life and show us its bloody reality. Now he would open his vein of tragedy and mingle gall with his ambrosia.
In 1579 Sir Thomas North’s Plutarch exposed a treasure trove of drama. Shakespeare took three of the Lives and molded them into The Tragedy of Julius Caesar (1599?). He found North’s translation so spirited that he appropriated several passages word for word, merely measuring the prose into blank verse; however, the speech of Antony over Caesar’s corpse was the poet’s own invention, a masterpiece of oratory and subtlety, and the sole defense he allows to Caesar. His admiration for Southampton, Pembroke, and the young Essex may have moved him to see the assassination from the standpoint of endangered and conspiring aristocrats; so Brutus becomes the center of the play. We, who have Mommsen’s details as to the odorous corruption of the “democracy” that Caesar overthrew, are more inclined to sympathize with Caesar, and are taken aback to find the title character dead at the outset of Act III. The past is helpless in the hands of the present, which repeatedly remolds it to the hour’s whim.
In writing Hamlet (1600?), as in Julius Caesar, Shakespeare had the aid and challenge of an earlier play on the theme; a Hamlet had been performed in London only six years before. We do not know how much he took from that lost tragedy, or from François de Belleforest’s Histoires tragiques (1576), or from the Historia Danica (1514) of the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus; nor can we say if Shakespeare read Of the Diseases of Melancholy, the recent English translation of a French medical work by Du Laurens. Doubting stoically every attempt to turn the plays into autobiography, we are yet warranted in asking whether some personal grief—in addition to the sobering of time—entered into the pessimism that cried out in Hamlet and grew bitterer in succeeding plays. It might have been a second disillusionment with love. Was it the first arrest of Essex (June 5, 1600), or the collapse of Essex’ revolt, the arrest of Essex and Southampton, the execution of Essex (February 25, 1601)? Presumably these events moved the sensitive poet who had so warmly praised Essex in the prologue to the last act of Henry V and, in the dedication to Lucrece, had pledged himself to Southampton forever. In any case, Shakespeare’s greatest plays were written during or after these calamities. They are subtler in plot, deeper in thought, more magnificent in language than their predecessors, but also they voice against life the bitterest reproaches in all literature. Hamlet’s vacillating will, and almost his “noble and most sovereign reason,” are disordered by discovering the reality and the nearness of evil, and by feeding on the venom of revenge till he himself sinks to feelingless cruelty, and sends Ophelia not to a nunnery but to madness and death. In the end the slaughter is general. Only Horatio survives, too simple to be mad.
Meanwhile Elizabeth too had found the final balm, and James VI of Scotland became James I of England. Soon after his accession he confirmed and extended the privileges of Shakespeare’s company, which became “the King’s Men.” Shakespeare’s plays were regularly performed before the King and met with ample royal encouragement. The three seasons between 1604 and 1607 brought the poet to the fullness of his genius and his bitterness. Othello (1604?) is as powerful as it is incredible. The audience was moved to pity by the devotion and the death of Desdemona and fascinated by the intelligent malignancy of lago; but in picturing such unmixed and unmotived evil in a man Shakespeare fell into Marlowe’s fault of monolithic characters, and even Othello, despite his union of generalship and stupidity, lacks that rich admixture of elements which makes Hamlet and Lear, Brutus and Antony human.
Macbeth (1605?) is a still more macabre contemplation of unmitigated evil. Shakespeare could cite Holinshed for the stark facts, but he made the story darker with his passionate disillusionment. The mood reached its nadir, the art its apogee, in King Lear(1606?). The tale had been elaborated by Geoffrey of Monmouth, carried down by Holinshed, and lately staged by a now unknown dramatist in The True Chronicle of King Lear (1605); plots were common property. The earlier play had followed Holinshed in giving Lear a happy ending, through reunion with Cordelia and restoration to the throne; Shakespeare is apparently guilty of the King’s madness and dethroned death, and he added the bloody blinding of Gloucester on the stage. Bitterness is the organ tone of the play. Lear bids fornication thrive and adultery increase, “for I lack soldiers”;15 all virtue, in his darkened view, is a front for lechery, all government is bribery, all history is humanity preying upon itself. He goes mad perceiving the profundity and the apparent victory of evil, and he sheds all faith in a sustaining Providence.
Antony and Cleopatra (1607?) reaches lesser heights and depths. There is something nobler in Antony’s defeat than in Lear’s rage, something more believable and bearable in the Roman’s infatuation with the Egyptian Queen than in the Briton’s unlikely cruelty to a daughter absurdly frank; and Cleopatra, cowardly in battle, is magnificent in suicide. Here too Shakespeare had previous plays to work on, and again he bettered them, renewing and brightening the oft-told tale with subtler analyses of character and the unwearied magic and sparkle of his speech.
In Timon of Athens (1608?) the pessimism is sardonic and unrelieved. Lear aims his shafts at women, but feels some tardy pity for mankind; the hero of Coriolanus (1608?) despises the people as the fickle, sycophantic, brainless spawn of carelessness; but Timon denounces all, high or low, and curses civilization itself as having demoralized mankind. Plutarch in his life of Antony had mentioned Timon as a famous misanthrope; Lucian had put him in a dialogue; and an English play had been written about him some eight years before Shakespeare, with an unknown collaborator, took up the theme. Timon is an Athenian millionaire, surrounded by receptive flattering friends. When he loses his money and sees his friends vanish overnight, he kicks the dust of civilization from his feet and retires—a Jaques in dour earnest—to a forest solitude, where, he hopes, he “shall find the unkindest beasts more kinder than mankind.”16 He wishes Alcibiades were a dog, “that I might love thee something.”17 He lives on roots, digs, finds gold. Friends appear again; he drives them off with lashing scorn; but when prostitutes come he gives them gold, on condition that they will infect as many men as possible with venereal disease:
In hollow bones of man; strike their sharp shins,
And mar men’s spurring [marriages]. Crack the
That he may never more false title plead,
And sound his quillets [quibbles] shrilly; hoar
the flamen [priest],
That scolds against the quality of flesh,
And not believes himself; down with the nose,
Down with it flat; take the bridge quite away …
And let the unscarr’d braggarts of the war
Derive some pain from you: plague all;
That your activity may defeat and quell
The source of all erection.—There’s more gold;
Do you damn others, and let this damn you …18
In an ecstasy of hatred he bids nature cease to breed men, and hopes that vicious beasts may multiply to wipe out the human race. The excesses of this misanthropy make it seem unreal; we cannot believe that Shakespeare felt this ridiculous superiority to sinful men, this cowardly incapacity to stomach life. Such a reductio ad nauseam suggests that the disease was purging itself, and that Shakespeare would soon smile again.