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Shakespeare - Chronology and Development

( Originally Published 1918 )

THE value of a knowledge of the order in which an author's works were composed no longer needs to be argued. The development of power and skill which such knowledge reveals is an important part of biography, and an individual work is more surely interpreted when we know the period and the circumstances of the author's life in which it was written, and what other works, by himself and his fellows, lie nearest in point of time. Without a knowledge of chronology, the indebtedness of contemporary authors to one another and the growth of literary forms cannot be determined.

The fact, so often to be insisted upon, that at the beginning of Shakespeare's career stage plays were hardly regarded as literature at all and were not published by their authors, deprives us of the evidence usually afforded by date of publication. We are thus forced to have recourse to a variety of more or less casually recorded data, and to indications of differences of maturity in style and matter which are often much less clear than could be wished. Before giving the results of the research that has been pursued for a century and a half, it will be worth while to enumerate the most fruitful methods which have been employed, and the sorts of evidence available.

Of purely external evidence, the chief kinds are these: records of the performance of plays in letters, diaries, accounts and the like ; quotation, allusion, imitation, o parody in other works; entries in the, books-of-the Master of the Revels at Court, and in the Register ,of the Stationers' Company ; dates on ,the title ages of the plays themselves; facts and traditions out the life of the author ; dates in the lives of actors and in the careers of companies know to have performed the plays, and in the histories of theaters in which they were presented. Instances of some of these are the manuscript which tells of a performance of The Comedy of Errors at Gray's Inn in 1594 ; the diary of the quack, Dr. Simon Forman, who witnessed performances of Macbeth, Cymbeline, and The Winter's Tale at the Globe in 1610 and 1611; the appreciation of Shakespeare, with a list of a dozen plays by him, in the Palladis Tamia of Francis Meres, 1598; and the pamphlets on Somers's voyage to Virginia, which offered suggestions for The Tempest.

Partly external and partly internal are the evidences derived from allussions in the plays to current events, personal or political, such as the reference in the Prologue to Henry V to the expedition of Essex to Ireland in 1599 ; references to other books, like the quotation from Marlowe in As You Like It, III. v. 82 ; references from one play of Shakespeare's to another, like the promise in the Epilogue to 2 Henry IV to "continue the story, with Sir John in it, and make you merry with fair Katherine of France."

The purely internal evidence is seldom as specific as the external, and requires to be handled with much judgment and caution. Most difficult in this class is the weighing of considerations of a moral or esthetic nature ; for, though these are often powerful in their effect on the individual reader, they are usually in-capable of proof to another person with different tastes and a different point of view. Of such tests, those afforded by a study of the methods used in the treatment of plot and in the development of character are perhaps the least subjective. Somewhat more palpable are the changing characteristics of _style. The number and nature of classical allusions and Latin words and quotations ; the kind and degree of elaboration of figures of speech, puns, conceits, and the like ; diffuseness or concentration in the expression of thought ; artificiality or lifelikeness in the treatment of dialogue ; the use of prose or verse ; the employment of oaths, checked by statute shortly after the accession of James I: these are the main aspects of style which can be used in determining, not exact dates, but the period of Shakespeare's activity within which a given work falls. More capable of mechanical calculation than the tests of either matter or style are those de-rived from changes in versification, though here too there is often a subjective element in the reckoning. The more important metrical tests include the following : the frequency, of rhyme, whether in the heroic couplet or, as not uncommonly occurs in early plays, in alternates and even such elaborate arrangements as the sonnet ; doggerel lines ; alexandrines, or lines of twelve syllables; the -presence of an extra syllable before a pause within the line ; short lines, especially at the end of speeches ; the substitution of other feet for the regular iambic movement of blank verse ; weak and light endings ; and, most valuable, the position of the pause in the line ("end-stopped" or "run on"), and feminine endings or hypermetrical lines, such as " These many summers in a sea of glory."

Many of these variable features were not consciously manipulated by the author; and, even when a general drift in a certain direction is clearly observable in his practice with regard to them, it is not to be assumed that his progress was perfectly regular, without leaps forward and occasional returns to an earlier usage. It is to be noted also that the subject and atmosphere of a particular play might induce a metrical treatment of a special kind, in which case the verse tests would yield evidence not primarily chronological at all. Nevertheless, when all allowances have been made and all due caution exercised, it will be found that the indications of the versification corroborate and supplement the external evidences in a valuable way.

The accompanying Tables give the detailed results of investigations along these lines, and a study of the data therein contained will reveal both their possibilities and their limitations. In Tables I and II the order of the plays is approximately that of the dates of their composition (virtually the same as the dates of first performance). The second and third columns cannot be regarded as giving any clue to chronology, except that they show that in the dramas written under the influence of Marlowe prose is comparatively rare. Elsewhere Shakespeare employed prose for a variety of purposes : for low comedy, as in the tavern scenes in Henry IV, and the scenes in which Sir Toby figures in Twelfth Night; for repartee, as in the wit-combats of Beatrice and Benedick ; for purely intellectual and moralizing speeches, such as Hamlet's over the skull of Yorick. On the other hand, highly emotional scenes are usually in verse, as are romantic passages like the conversation of Lorenzo and Jessica in the moonlight at Belmont, or the dialogues of Fenton and Anne Page, which contrast with the realistic prose of the rest of the Merry Wives and also the artificial pastoralism of Silvius and Phoebe in As You Like It. Few absolute rules can be laid down in the matter, but study of Shakespeare's practice reveals an admirable tact in his choice of medium.

The frequency of rhyme, as shown in the fourth column, has more relation to date. While there is no very steady gradation, it is clear that in his earlier plays he used rhyme freely, while at the close of his career he had practically abandoned it. The large number of rhymes in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Romeo and Juliet is accounted for mainly by the prevailing lyrical tone of a great part of these plays, while, on the other hand, in All's Well it probably points to survivals of an earlier first form of this comedy. It ought to be noted that, in the figures given here, the rhyming lines in the play scene in Hamlet, the vision in Cymbeline, the masque in The Tempest, and the Prologue and Epilogue of Henry VIII are not reckoned,

More significant are the percentages in columns five, six, and seven. Before 1598, feminine endings never reach twenty per cent of the total number of pentameter lines ; after that date they are practically always above that number, and show afairly steady increase to the thirty-five per cent of The Tempest. The variations of run-on lines (which, of course, carry with them the frequency of pauses within the line, and inversely the growing rarity of end-stopped lines) are closely parallel to those of the feminine endings while the increase in the proportion of speeches ending within the line is still more striking. In The Comedy of Errors this phenomenon hardly occurs at all ; in The Tempest it happens in over eighty-four per cent of the speeches, the increase being especially regular after 1598. Yet in some cases other causes are operative. Thus cuts and revisions of plays were apt to leave broken lines at the ends of speeches, and the comparatively high percentages in Love's Labour's Lost, Romeo and Juliet, and All's Well are probably in part due to these causes.

The phenomena recorded in the last column are peculiar. Previous to the date of Macbeth it appears that Shakespeare practically avoided ending a line with light or weak words such as prepositions, conjunctions, and auxiliary verbs, but that from about 1606 to the end he employed them in proportions ranging from 3.53 per cent in Antony and Cleopatra to 7.14 per cent in his part of Henry VIII.

The figures for plays not wholly written by Shakespeare are naturally less significant, and have therefore been given separately ; yet, on the whole, they show the same general tendencies in the use of meter.

It will be observed that while the developments suggested by the different columns are fairly consistent, they do not absolutely agree in any two cases, and can obviously be used, as has been said, only to corroborate other evidence in placing a play in a period, not to fix a precise year. Further, in the calculations involved, there are many doubtful cases calling for the exercise of individual judgment, especially as to what constitutes a run-on line, or a light or weak ending. Thus Professor Bradley differs from Konig in several cases as to the figures given in the seventh column, counting the percentage of speeches ending within the line as 57 for Hamlet, 54 for Othello, 69 for King Lear, and 75 for Macbeth. For Acts III, IV, and V of Pericles, the 71 per cent is Bradley's, for which Kong's 17.1 is clearly a mistake. Serious as are such discrepancies, and suggestive of a need for a general re-counting of all the more significant phenomena, they are not so great as to shake the faith of any scholar who has seriously studied the matter in the usefulness of metrical tests as an aid in the settling of the chronology.

Table III gives a summary of the results of all the kinds of evidence available as recorded in the introduction to individual plays in the Tudor Shakespeare. The classification into Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies draws attention at once to the changes in the type of drama on which Shakespeare concentrated his main attention, and suggests the usual division of his activity into four periods. In the first of these, extending from the beginning of his writing (perhaps earlier than 1590) to the end of 1593, he attempted practically all the forms of drama then in vogue. Plays which were given him to revise, or in which he was invited to collaborate, may naturally be supposed to have preceded independent efforts, and his still undetermined share in Henry VI is usually regarded as his earliest dramatic production. What he learned in this field of tragic history from his more experienced fellows may be seen in Richard III, in which he can be observed following in the footsteps of Marlowe in the treatment of meter, in the rhetorical and lyrical nature of the dialogue, and in the conception of the central character. Even less of his individual quality is to be discerned in the field of tragedy, for the most that can be claimed for him in Titus Andronicus is the recombination of the repellent episodes of that crude specimen of the tragedy of blood, and the rewriting of the lines which occasionally cloak the horrors with passages of poetry. If, as is unlikely, the first form of Romeo and Juliet was written in this period, the extant form must show it so radically revised that it leaves us little ground for generalization as to his power in tragedy in this first period.

It was in comedy . that Shakespeare first showed originality. Love's Labour's Lost is one of the few plays whose plots seem to have been due to his own invention ; and full of sparkle and grace as it is, it bears obvious marks of the tour de force, the young writer's conscious testing of his powers in social satire, in comic situation, and most of all in verbal mastery and the manipulation of dialogue. In The Comedy of Errors he had the advantage of a definite model in the well-defined type of the Plautian comedy ; but here again in the doubling of the twins and the elaboration of the entanglements there are traces of the beginner's delight in technic for its own sake. The clearly contrasted types in the two pairs of heroes and heroines of The Two Gentlemen of Verona point to a conscious effort in characterization, as the author's attention had been concentrated on dialogue and on situation in the other two comedies of this group. Thus, regarding the variety of kind and the nature of his achievement in these first eight or nine plays, we can hardly fail to acquiesce in the general opinion that views the first period as one of experiment.

The chronicle history was the Elizabethan dramatic form whose possibilities were first exhausted. King John had been only a making over of an earlier work, and perhaps the most significant single change Shakespeare made was the excision of the anti-Romanist bias which in the older play had made John a Protestant hero. Yet this history voices, too, in the speeches of Faulconbridge, that patriotic enthusiasm which finds fuller expression in the dying Gaunt's eulogy of England in Richard II, and culminates in the triumphant heroics of Henry V. This national enthusiasm, especially ebullient in the years following the Great Armada, is justly to be regarded as an important condition of the flourishing of these plays on English history ; and it is natural to suppose that the ebbing of this spirit in the closing years of Elizabeth's reign is not unconnected with the decline of this dramatic type. There are, however, other causes clearly perceptible. The material was nearly exhausted. Almost every prominent national figure for the three hundred years before the founding of the Tudor dynasty had been put upon the stage ; and to come down to more recent times was to meddle with matters of controversy, the ashes of which were not yet cold. The reign of Henry VIII was not touched till after the death of Elizabeth, and the nature of the treatment given to the court of her father by Shakespeare and Fletcher corroborates our view. Further, the growing mastery of technic which is so clearly perceptible in the comedies of the second period must have been accompanied by a restlessness under the hampering conditions as to the manipulation of character and plot which were imposed by the less plastic material of the chronicles. Some effort towards greater freedom the dramatist made in the later histories. The earlier plays of this class had been prevailingly tragic; but now he supplemented and enlivened the political element with the comic scenes which gave us Falstaff; yet these scenes, brilliant as they are in dialogue and superb in characterization, are of necessity little more than episodes. The form had served its purpose as an outlet for national feeling, but it was now outgrown. So distinguished, however, is Shakespeare's achievement in this kind that we might be almost justified in calling this second period that of the culmination of the chronicle history.

The main objection to this title lies in his contemporary accomplishment in comedy. A Midsummer-Night's Dream and The Merchant of Venice, the one in its graceful poetic fancy and dainty lyricism, the other in its balanced treatment of all the elements of dramatic effectiveness action, character, and dialogue, exhibit the dramatist in complete control of his technical instruments, the creator of masterpieces of romantic comedy. The Taming of the Shrew is a more or less perfunctory revision, probably in collaboration, of an older farce comedy ; The Merry Wives of Windsor bears on its face corroboration of the tradition that it was written to order in a fortnight. The power in high comedy first fully shown in The Merchant of Venice reaches its supreme pitch in the three plays composed at the turn of the century, Much Ado about Nothing, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night. In each of these a romantic love-tale, laid in some remote holiday world, is taken up, given a specific atmosphere, acted out by a group of delightful creations who are endowed with intellect, wit, and natural affection, bathed in poetic imagination, and yet handled with sufficient naturalism to awaken and hold our human sympathies. No more purely delightful form of dramatic art has ever been contrived ; none has ever been treated so as to yield more fully its appropriate charm ; so that in view of the completeness of the artist's success we are bound to call the period which closed with the first year of the seventeenth century the triumph of comedy.

Julius Cesar, the first of the plays dealing with Roman history, may have been written before 1600, but, whether it preceded Hamlet by one year or three, it forms a gradual introduction to the group of the great tragedies. Masterly as it is in its delineation of types, rich in political wisdom and the knowledge of human nature, splendid in rhetoric, it still fails to rise to the intensity of passion that marks the succeeding dramas. In Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth, Shakespeare at length faced the great fundamental forces that operate in individual, family, and social life, realized especially those that make for moral and physical disaster, took account alike of the deepest tendencies in character and of the mystery of external fate or accident, exhibited these in action and reaction, in their simplicity and their complexity, and wrought out a series of spectacles of the pity and terror of human suffering and human sin without parallel in the modern world. In these stupendous tragedies he availed himself of all the powers with which he was endowed and all the skill which he had acquired. His verse has liberated itself from the formalism and monotony that had marked it in the earlier plays, and is now free, varied,. responsive to every mood and every type of, passion; the language is- laden almost to the breaking point with the weight of thought ; the dialogue ranges from the lightest irony to heart-rending pathos and intolerable denunciation ; the characters lose all semblance of artificial creations and challenge criticism and analysis like any personage in history ; the action is pregnant with the profoundest significance. Hardly, if at all, less powerful are the later tragedies of the Roman group. Antony and Cleopatra is unsurpassed for the intensity of its picture of passion, for its superb mastery of language, for its relentless truth. The more somber scenes of Coriolanus convey a tragedy which either on its personal or its political side scarcely yields to its predecessors in poignancy and gloom. Whatever else he may have written in these years, here is surely the period of tragedy.

Nor do the plays classed as comedies and falling in the first three years of the new century seriously modify this impression of the prevailing tone of the period. Troilus and Cressida, All's Well that Ends Well, and Measure for Measure present a marked contrast to the romantic comedy of the preceding stage. The love-story of the first deals with a coquette and ends sordidly; while in the political plot, though it gives occasion for speeches full of weighty thinking, jealousy and intrigue overwhelm the heroic element. The second, alone of Shakespeare's comedies, has a hero who is a rake ; and, skilful as is the delineation of Helena, it needs all the dramatist's power to hold our sympathy and to force us to an unwilling assent to the title. Measure for Measure has its scene laid in a city seething in moral corruption : out of this rises the central situation of the play ; and the presence of the most idealistic of Shakespeare's heroines does not avail to counter-balance the atmosphere of sin and death that mocks the conventional happy ending, and makes this play, even more than the two others, seem more in place among the tragedies than among the comedies.

The plays of the last period are, in the Folio, classed with comedies, and such no doubt they are if judged merely by the nature of their denouements. But if we consider their characteristic note, and the fact that through the greater part of each play the forces and passions involved are rather those operative in tragedy than in comedy, we easily perceive why they have been classed as tragi-comedies or dramatic romances. Pericles in many respects stands apart from the other three in nature as well as in date, for it is a dramatization of an old Greek romance, and in it the hand of another than Shakespeare is only too evident. Yet it shares with the others certain common features : like The Tempest it has scenes at sea; all four deal with the separation and reuniting of families ; all show us sympathetic figures deeply wronged and finally over-coming their injurers by forgiveness. The abounding high spirits of the earlier comedies are here replaced by a mood of calm assurance of the ultimate triumph of good and a placid faith that survives a rude acquaintance with the evil that is in men's hearts. No period has a more distinctive quality than this of the dramatic romances, in which the dramatist, on the eve of his retirement from London, gave his imagination free play, and in both character and action stamped his last creations with the mark of a lofty idealism.

The obvious fitness of this fourfold division into periods inevitably raises the question of its causes, and attempts at an answer have run along two main lines. One of these has been followed out with much eloquence and persuasiveness by Professor Dowden, whose phrases "In the Workshop," "In the World," "In the Depths," "On the Heights," to describe the four periods, point clearly enough to the kind of significance which he finds in the changes in mood and type of play. With the first of these phrases few will be disposed to quarrel. In his period of experiment Shakespeare's style was as yet comparatively unformed, and his attention was so much occupied with problems of technic that even the most psychological of critics finds here little revelation of personality, and must be content to describe the stage as one of professional apprenticeship. In the terms used of the three later periods, however, there is an implication that the tone and mood of the plays in each are the direct reflection of the emotional experiences through which the poet himself was passing at the period of their composition. But this is to take for granted a theory of the relation between artist and production which has against it the general testimony of creator and critic alike. It is not at the pitch of an emotional experience that an artist success-fully transmutes his life into art, but in retrospect, when his recollective imagination reproduces his mood in a form capable of being expressed without being dissipated. Of course, Shakespeare must have lived and enjoyed and suffered intensely ; but this does not commit us to a belief in an immediate turning to account of personal experience in the writing of drama. His boy, Hamnet, died in 1596, about the time that he was writing The Merchant of Venice and the rollicking farce of The Taming of the Shrew, and just before he conceived Falstaff ; it was fourteen years later that he gave us the pathetic figure of the young Mamillius in The Winter's Tale. From all we know of his personal life, the years of King Lear and Othello were years of abounding prosperity. The lacrimae rerum that touch the mind in these stupendous tragedies are the outcome of profound meditation and vivid imagination, not the accompaniment of a cry of instant pain. However we are to reconstruct the spiritual biography of Shakespeare, it is clear that it is by no such simple reading of his life in terms of his treatment of comic or tragic themes.

The other line of explanation will suggest itself to any thoughtful student who contemplates the facts summed up in Chapter V on the Elizabethan drama. Whatever Shakespeare's preeminence in the quality of his work, he was not singular for innovations in kind. Not only are the plays of his experimental stage preceded by models easily discerned, but throughout his career one can see him eagerly taking up and developing varieties of drama on which less capable men had stumbled and for which the public had shown relish. Chronicle history, romantic comedy, tragedies of blood and revenge, dramatic romance, had all been invented by others, and Shakespeare never hesitated to follow their trail when it promised to lead to popular success. This does not mean that he did not put conscience into his work, but only that the change in type of play perceptible from period to period is more safely to be explained by changes of theatrical fashion and public taste than by conjectures as to the inner life of the dramatist. Nor are we prevented from finding here too that great good fortune as to occasion and opportunity that is needed, along with whatever natural endowment, to explain the achievement of Shakespeare. The return of the vogue of tragedy after he had attained maturity and seen life was indeed happy for him and for us ; as was the rise of the imaginative type of dramatic romance when the storm and stress of his youth had gone by. Had the theatrical demand called for tragedy when Shakespeare was in the early thirties and light comedy when he was in the forties, it seems likely that he would have responded to the demand, though we can hardly suppose that the result would have been as fortunate as in the existing state of things it proved to be.

The foregoing discussion has been confined to Shakespeare's plays ; the poems present problems of their own. Venus and Adonis (1593) and Lucrece (1594), indeed, resemble the plays of the first period, with which they are contemporary, both in conforming to a familiar type then much in vogue, the re-telling in ornate style of classical legends drawn chiefly from Ovid, and in exhibiting marks of the conscious exercise of technical dexterity. They show the Shakespeare of the dramas mainly in their revelation of a remarkable power of detailed observation and their richness of phrase and fluency of versification. Vivid and eloquent though they are, they can hardly be regarded as affording a sure prophecy of the passion and power of characterization that mark his mature dramatic production.

The case of the Sonnets is very different. From Meres's mention of them in 1598 we know that some had been written and were being circulated in manuscript by that date, and certain critics have sought to assign the main body of them to the first half of the last decade of the sixteenth century. But they were not published till 1600, and many of the greatest strike a note of emotion more profound than can be heard before the date of Hamlet. In writing them, Shakespeare was, to be sure, following a vogue, but as Professor Alden has pointed out in his introduction to them in the Tudor Shakespeare, they stand apart in important respects from the ordinary sonnet sequences of the time. All our researches have failed to tell us to whom they were addressed, if, indeed, they were addressed to any actual person at all; it is hardly necessary to urge that Shakespeare was capable of profound and passionate utterance under the impulse of imagination alone. The probability is that they were produced at intervals over a period of perhaps a dozen years, and that they represent a great variety of moods, impulses, and suggestions. While some of them betray signs of youth and remind us of the apprentice workman of Love's Labour's Lost, others display in their depth of thought, intensity of feeling, and superb power of incisive and concentrated expression, the full maturity of the man and the artist. Hardly in the great tragedies themselves is there clearer proof of Shakespeare's supremacy in thought and language.

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