Recent Shakespearean Literature

THERE are three kinds of literary experts : those who know books, those who know about books, and those who know about writers of books. The first are critics; the second, literary historians; the third, biographers. The author of Shakespeare and the Modern Stage1 made his reputation as a biographer through his work on the Dictionary of National Biography and several monographs growing out of that work. He passed on to literary history in such contributions as those on the Elizabethan sonnet, though here his grasp is less sure and his equipment less adequate. In the present volume he appears not only as biographer and historian, but also as critic. It is important to attempt to appraise his method and achievement in each department separately, not merely for the sake of clearness, but because the public is apt to accept successful accomplishment in one of these fields as a guarantee of efficiency in the others.

Under the head of biography may be classed at least four of Mr. Lee’s essays, since they deal either directly with Shakespeare’s life or with the history of his reputation. In these the author writes as an authority. “ Shakespeare in Oral Tradition ” is an interesting collection of the statements about the dramatist that go back, not to documents, but to the lips of his contemporaries. Each in turn is valued in expert fashion, and made to give up its due amount of reliability and significance. In “ Pepys and Shakespeare ” the great diarist’s comments on the fortyone Shakespearean performances which he records are taken as a basis for generalizations as to his literary and theatrical taste. The tone and the method are perhaps a trifle ponderous for so light a theme; but any essayist on Pepys can be amusing if he quotes enough. Mr. Lee quotes a good deal. “ A Peril of Shakespearian Research ” is a vigorous attempt to expose finally the supposed letter from George Peele describing a meeting of Shakespeare, Jonson, and Edward Ally n at “ The Globe.” The history of the hoax is traced from its first invention by George Steevens through a long series of resuscitations. In such investigations as this Mr. Lee is at his best, research and exposition being alike admirable. In “ Shakespeare in France ” the essayist discusses M, Jusserand’s book of the same name, makes some additions, and interprets the significance of Shakespeare’s vogue on the French stage.

In these papers, as I have said, Mr. Lee writes as an authority. The trouble is that he also writes like an authority, if the pedantry may be pardoned; that is, he condescends in bestowing his information, and seems to take care that the reader shall remain his debtor for it, shall not go behind him and know for himself. Those who have used his Life of Shakespeare carefully arc familiar with the irritating frequency of his use of “doubtless ” with statements which, though probable, cannot be proved. No sacrifice of literary style is necessary to indicate precisely the amount of doubt which “doubtless” paradoxically implies; and from a scholar we have a right to expect this kind of precision. In the present volume there is more excuse for vagueness than in his more technical works; but here also it causes dissatisfaction. Take for example the passage in which he tells of Pepys’s condemnation of The Merry Wives of Windsor. “It is in his favour,” says Mr. Lee, “ that his bitterest reproaches are aimed at the actors and actresses. One can hardly conceive that Falstaff, fitly interpreted, would have failed to satisfy Pepys’s taste in humour, commonplace though it was. He is not quite explicit on the point; but there are signs that the histrionic interpretation of Shakespeare’s colossal humorist, rather than the dramatist’s protrayal of the character, caused the diarist’s disappointment.” “He is not quite explicit on the point” — the docile reader must seek to know no more. But the interested reader would rather hear what Pepys actually says than read a paraphrase at once unsatisfying and verbose.

If Mr. Lee were always sure of his facts this lack of explicitness might more easily be forgiven. But he often permits himself a form of assurance that the state of scholarship does not warrant. “ Without friends, without money, [Shakespeare] had, like any other stage-struck youth, set his heart on becoming an actor in the metropolis.” This may be true, but no one can prove it; and it is to be regretted that a professional biographer should fail to draw clearly the line between fact and fancy.

Passing over those papers aimed at the reform of the modern stage — by simplifying scenery, by building municipal theatres, by establishing stock companies for the training of Shakespearean actors, — all sane and persuasive arguments, — we may look for a moment at the more purely critical essays. These concern ‘ Aspects of Shakespeare’s Philosophy ” and “ Shakespeare and Patriotism,” and may be treated as one. At the outset we are warned against the danger of taking as Shakespeare’s an opinion uttered by one of his characters, and it is suggested that in the repetition of an opinion at different periods of the poet’s career we have a hint of personal conviction. With these guides the critic draws as his main inferences that Shakespeare was impressed by the human limitations of kingship, by the necessity for social order, by the fact of moral retribution, by the freedom of the human will, and by the inferior capacity of woman to control her destiny. Most of these are familiar; some of them are sound; but few of them are argued in accordance with the principles laid down. It is surely to disregard dramatic appropriateness to call in evidence of Shakespeare’s championship of the freedom of the will the words of Iago and Edmund, without reflecting that these words are put in the mouths of two consummate villains, one of whom, at least, is an habitual liar. Professor Raleigh uses precisely the same passages to prove the opposite contention. Again, the canon of frequent repetition is ludicrously disregarded in such an inference as the following: “Shakespeare seems slyly to confess a personal conviction of defective balance in the popular judgment when he makes the first grave-digger remark that Hamlet was sent to England because he was mad.

“ ‘ He shall recover Ms wits there,’ the old clown suggests, ‘or if he do not, ’tis no great matter there,’

“ ‘ Why ? ’ asks Hamlet.

“ ‘’T will not be seen in him there: there the men are as mad as he.’ ”

The present volume, then, affords no great hope that from Mr. Lee we are to expect profound or original criticism; it renews the assurance that he knows where to find a vast number of interesting facts about Elizabethan authors; and it makes us wish that he would guard with less jealousy the secret of Ms sources.

Professor Baker’s Development of Shakespeare as a Dramatist2 is more frankly a work of scholarship. This does not mean that it is poorly written or that it is dry, for it is neither; only that the author is scrupulously careful to give reasons for his opinions, and to state no conclusion with more assurance than the evidence warrants. It is primarily an examination of Shakespeare’s progress in craftsmanship, made by a scholar who adds to a familiarity with the printed dramas an experience of the methods and requirements of the stage as rare among Shakespearean critics as it is valuable. It is precisely in this combination that Professor Baker’s special advantage lies, and he has employed it here with extremely valuable results.

The discussion of the plays themselves is prefaced by an account of the public for whom Shakespeare wrote, of the progress already made in dramatic technique by his predecessors, and of the stage conditions of Ins time. These preliminary matters are abundantly justified by the consideration that the acted drama is a product, not of the author’s mind alone, but of the author in collaboration with the actor and the public. The value of much dramatic, and especially Shakespearean, criticism has been reduced by the ignoring of these latter factors; and for the tracing of Shakespeare’s development as a writer for the stage it was highly important to remind us of the practical conditions which he was ever aiming to meet. But Professor Baker does more than sum up what was known on these matters: he seeks to advance knowledge. The various disputed points in connection with the Elizabethan stage are taken up one by one, the evidence marshaled, and the inferences tested afresh. On the question of the seating capacity of the theatre of that time, he is disposed to regard Mr. Corbin’s estimate of nearly three thousand as excessive, and his arguments would justify a less cautious verdict. He practically disposes of the belief, founded on the well-known sketch of the Swan Theatre, that the balcony over the stage was occupied bv spectators. As to the existence of signs indicating localities, he concludes that “there never were signs saying merely, ‘ This is a street,’ ‘This is a house,’ etc., and that, though signs bearing the titles of the plays may well have been displayed, the use of signs to denote special places was old, decreasing, and by 1600 unusual.” The number and location of stage exits he believes to have been varied according to the requirements of the particular play. The usual statement that the public stage had absolutely no scenery is shown to be probably too strong, as there is at least a presumption in favor of painted cloths afforded by such entries as Henslowe’s of “The sittie of Rome” in a list of properties. But the issue most elaborately argued here is that concerning the use of curtains. Professor Baker is strongly inclined to believe that in some of the theatres a curtain “somewhere in front,” probably between the pillars supporting the “Heavens,” was in use, giving four divisions, front, inner, back, and upper stage, — the upper stage being the balcony, the back stage the space under the balcony, and the other two being divisions of the platform that projected into the middle of the pit. The arguments for and against this arrangement are too elaborate for discussion here. We can only note that the author does not make the claim for all theatres, nor for any during the whole period of their existence. lie has, it should be gratefully remarked, grasped the important fact so often ignored, that all the evidence points to a great diversity in usage among different theatres and at different times. An absolute negative of his position would be hard, we believe impossible, to prove. The whole of this part of the book is illustrated by an admirable set of maps and pictures.

In the main part of the volume Professor Baker’s method is to derive, by elaborate analysis of structure and motivation, materials for tracing Shakespeare’s gradual mastery of his art. The general trend of this development is convincingly made out and many illuminating points of view are suggested by the way. The result of so elaborate a study cannot, of course, be summed up in a phrase; but Mr. Baker’s chief general inference may be shortly stated: The Elizabethan audience was primarily interested in story-telling. Shakespeare was personally most interested in characterization. To satisfy popular demand he learned all his predecessors had to teach about the effective dramatic presentation of a story, and, enormously bettering his instruction, carried technique to a high point of perfection, earning his reward in great contemporary popularity. To satisfy his own artistic instincts he developed the art of characterization; and he succeeded in uniting and reconciling this with the more popular element in his work in such a way as to please his audience without degrading his art.

Without seeking to invalidate this general conclusion, one may be inclined to discuss further some of the steps by which it is reached. Much is made, for example, of the position that the chronicle play is not properly a literary “form ” at all, because it can best be distinguished from comedy, tragedy, and the rest, by its material. It is clear that by “form” the author means species or genre ; but one is inclined to suspect that he has been somewhat confused by the term chosen. For literary genres are differentiated in part by matter as well as by form; or rather the peculiarity of the matter often helps to determine the form. It is clearly impossible to define such acknowledged species as the pastoral, the satire, or the elegy, without reference to material. That material is an essential element in the defining of the chronicle play does not, then, exclude it from the list of dramatic species. Neither is such a fact fatal as that in the Falstaff scenes of Henry IV we have the germ of the comedy of manners. For it is in spite of, not because of, these scenes that Henry IV is called a chronicle play; and it was in no sense the chronicle that developed into comedy. The chronicle play had its own method, which is properly described in the present work as the method of the miracle play applied to secular history. It was, indeed, a primitive method; and this, along with the lack of plasticity in the material, the inevitable exhaustion of that material, the passing away of the exceptional patriotic impulse that produced it, and the damaging contrast with the rapidly developing rival genres, are enough to account for its disappearance as a species, without our having to deny that it had ever been a species at all.

The stressing of this point may be the cause of what seems the lack of full justice to some of the plays. Richard II will seem to many students to deserve more respectful treatment than it receives here. In the delicate and elaborate portraiture of the king, and in the obvious fitness of his fate to his character, we have surely something more than “ a kind of sublimated melodrama; ” surely here Shakespeare did “discern behind the historical events the great laws and forces for which these kings, queens, and nobles were but the puppets.” Yet these things are here denied. In such occasional yielding to the tyranny of a theory, and in the omission at times to allow sufficiently for the stubbornness of the original story, lie the chief limitations of this study. But, in comparison with the value and sanity of the work as a whole, they are trifling. One can hardly find in current literature a better example of the service that can be performed to art and the appreciation of art by scientific scholarship.

Many of us have speculated on the reasons which induced Mr. John Morley, as editor of the English Men of Letters, to omit from his list the greatest name of all. Was it due to a failure to find a worthy critic ? or did it seem the safest way to pay the supreme compliment P Whatever the cause, it has failed to influence the editor of the additional series, who has boldly selected his man and given us the book.3 The choice is, indeed, a sagacious one. By virtue of his chair at Oxford Professor Raleigh may be regarded as in a way the official head of his profession; by virtue of his previous work he stands in the front rank of living English critics. The present volume raises the average of the series, and it sustains the admirable level of the author’s previous volumes. Whether it entirely fulfills the hopes of Professor Raleigh’s admirers is more doubtful.

To write a book about Shakespeare in two hundred pages and deal not noth an aspect but with the sum of his achievement was indeed no easy task. Exhaustiveness was out of the question; the problem was one of selection and compression, and much had to be sacrificed. Thus at the outset, the author gave up any attempt to contribute new biographical facts. Instead, he condenses perfunctorily the results of the labors of the biographers, but hints that he is doubtful if their meagre sheaf was worth the trouble of gleaning. For minute scholarship he has, on the whole, something akin to contempt, which may account for the quality of his own results in that field. Take an instance. Pie washes to illustrate “the alliance of poetry with the drama,” and he chooses appropriately the creation of the Forest of Arden. “A minute examination of As You Like It,” he says, “has given a curious result. No single bird, or insect, or flower, is mentioned by name. The words ‘ flower ’ and deaf’ do not occur. The oak is the only tree. For animals, there are the deer, one lioness, and one green and gilded snake.” Run over the play to corroborate this, and you will find, besides the oak, the palm, the hawthorn, the bramble, the medlar, a “tuft of olives,” and a “rank of osiers by the murmuring stream; ” besides deer, lioness,and snake, mention of sheep (rams, ewes, and lambs) and goats, with incidental mention of horses, oxen, hogs, dogs, parrots, pigeons, and toads. Shakespeare’s magic is real enough; it does not need to be proved by such “minute ” research as this.

But this is merely an example of Professor Raleigh’s stumbling when he strays out of his own field, and it is cited only to indicate his limitations. Within his own field, as a critic of Shakespeare’s imaginative creations, he is always clever and sparkling, at times profound, and not seldom nobly eloquent. His interpretations of Falstaff, of Shylock, and of Othello are worthy of the best traditions of Shakespearean criticism, and could hardly be better written. It is in such appreciations of individual characters, or of single speeches and lines, that he shows greatest acumen. On the side of dramatic structure he has by no means the skill of Professor Baker; in the attempt to extract a philosophical significance from the world portrayed by Shakespeare he has neither the insight nor the synthetic power of Professor Bradley. Yet the book is distinctly a brilliant piece of writing, and one may doubt whether any one in our generation has in the same space said so many keen things about Shakespeare or has said them so well.

  1. Shakespeare and the Modern Stage, with Other Essays. By SIDNEY LEE. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1906.
  2. The Development of Shakespeare as a Dramatist. By GEORGE PIERCE BAKER. New York: The Macmillan Company. 1907.
  3. Shakespeare. By WALTER RALEIGH. English Men of Letters Series. New York : The Macmillan Company. 1907.