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and joyously. Life has not as yet shown to the poet its darker, more tragic side. He had, indeed, written Romeo and Juliet, that rapturous and romantic tragedy of ill-fated love, and The Merchant of Venice, with its pathetic figure of Shylock. He had composed The Rape of Lucrece, in which the brightness and joy of out-ofdoors and the ardent poetry found in the Venus and Adonis are replaced by the gloom of darker passion and crime, and by greater depth of meditation and thought. But the prevailing notes of the early work were those of free and even boisterous laughter, and unbroken, happily ending love.
Shakespeare's Tragic Period. -- Toward the close of the sixteenth century, however, a change begins to be apparent in the spirit of Shakespeare's work. As early probably as 1594, Shakespeare had begun to write a series of Sonnets, all of which are steeped in profound feeling. In the later of these we see a foreshadowing of Shakespeare's tragic mood. We read in them of a conflict between love and duty, of the passing of youth, of the death of friends, “hid in death's dateless night," of a profound disgust for a world in which evil is captain over good. Twelfth Night, although written a little later than the greater part of the Sonnets, is a rollicking comedy. The solemn Malvolio is the butt of the jolly, drunken Sir Toby and the quick-witted Maria. Yet even in this play the mirth is not wholly careless. The note of warning mingles with the clown's song: “What's to come is still unsure;" love is not “hereafter," seize it now, for
“Youth's a stuff will not endure."
The words seem at least prophetic. In the same year in which he wrote Twelfth Night (1601), Shakespeare
began in Julius Cæsar that great series of plays which won him a place among the supreme tragic poets of the world. In play after play we now find him turning from the humorous and gayer side of life to face the ultimate problems of existence, and to sound the depths of human weakness, agony, and crime. How far these great tragedies were wrought out of the suffering and bitterness of Shakespeare's cwn experience, and how far they were the result merely of the deepening and strengthening of Shakespeare's character, will never, in all likelihood, be determined. The vital thing is, that, from whatever cause, Shakespeare appears to have passed through a period of spiritual conflict.
His Studies of Sin. — It is evident that the thought of Shakespeare in these plays is largely occupied with the great fact of sin; sin, not in its relation to a life hereafter, but sin as it is in this present world. In Macbeth we are present at the ruin of a soul, standing irresolute at the brink of the first crime and then hurrying recklessly from guilt to guilt; in Othello we see the helplessness of a “noble nature" in the hands of fiendish ingenuity and malice; Hamlet and Ophelia, the "fair rose of May," perish with the guilty King and Queen; the outcast Lear, "more sinned against than sinning, and his one faithful daughter, Cordelia, fall victims to a monstrous wickedness. Shakespeare views evil fearlessly and reports it honestly, and yet in the awful world of crime portrayed in these tragedies there is room for figures and examples of virtue and holiness. Our conception of the worth and dignity of life is raised, our ideals purified and ennobled, by the contemplation of the heroic in Shakespeare's world. Cordelia, Virgilia, Miranda, and Portia elevate and sanctify our thoughts of womanhood by their loveliness and purity. The
faithfulness of Kent in King Lear, and the Roman constancy of Horatio in Hamlet, inspire us with admiration of manly virtue. “Shakespeare," says Coleridge, “is an author, of all others, calculated to make his readers better as well as wiser." He shows us there is nothing so loathsome as sin, nothing so beautiful as goodness. He shows us that high endeavor, greatness, and innocence cannot really fail so long as they remain true to themselves, because they are their own exceeding great reward. Shakespeare does not explain the dark riddle of life; he does say with unequaled earnestness, “Woe unto them that call darkness light, and light darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter.”
Yet with all his stern condemnation of sin, Shakespeare pours out over the faults and frailties of the erring creatures he has made the fullness of a marvelous tenderness and pity. Through all of his work, this compassion for human weakness, this large-hearted sympathy with human failures and mistakes, sheds a gracious and kindly light; but in two plays, Measure for Measure and The Merchant of Venice, the need of mercy is given an especial prominence. In the first, Isabella, imploring mercy for her condemned brother, exclaims:
And in the same spirit, Portia declares:
“That in the course of justice none of us
The Romances. — From this period of stress and storm and doubt, tempered by the gentle light of charity and mercy, Shakespeare, toward the close of his life, passed to a calmer and serener station" on the heights." His tragic period was closed, and he turned to write some of the loveliest of his comedies with undiminished freshness and creative vigor. These latest plays are sometimes called romances, because though they end happily and are therefore in one sense comedies, they are more grave and tender, and of a more tranquil beauty, than are the earlier comedies. They are the result of a deeper experience of life. The imagination which at the beginning of Shakespeare's work budded forth in A Midsummer Night's Dream, the fairyland of Oberon and Titania, gives being in The Tempest to the dainty spirit Ariel, speeding at the command of Prospero, or cradled in the bell of a cowslip; while in The Winter's Tale we can fancy ourselves back again in Warwickshire with Shakespeare, breathing its country odors and gazing on the
"daffodils, That come before the swallow dares, and take The winds of March with beauty.”
Last Years. — As Shakespeare's fortune and engagements permitted him, he seems to have spent more and more time in his native place. In his active and hardworking years in London, he had grown in fortune as well as in reputation; he had shown himself a practical and capable man of business as well as a transcendent genius, and by his character he had won the love and respect of his fellows. By 1597 he was able to buy a home for himself in his beloved Stratford. In 1599 he was one of the proprietors of “ The Globe Theatre.”
In 1609, a further purchase of one hundred and seven acres of land at Stratford is made by William Shakespeare, Gentleman. And in 1610 or 1612 he appears to have returned there permanently. He had said his last to the world; for a few silent years he lived in the midst of the scenes and associations of his boyhood, and then, on the twenty-third of April, 1616, the fifty
second anniversary, it is supposed, of his birth, he closed his eyes on the world.
Summary. — Shakespeare's great distinction as a man of letters is that in him are combined, to a greater extent than in any other modern writer, a profound knowledge of the human heart, an exalted imagination, and an unequaled command of language. Perhaps the noblest single characteristic of Shakespeare is his union of righteousness and charity. Great in his dramatic and