His contemporary, the dramatist, Ben Jonson, had the penetration to say of Shakespeare:—
“He was not of an age but for all time.”
He meant that Shakespeare does not exhibit some popular conceit, folly, or phase of thought, which is merely the fashion of the hour and for which succeeding generations would care nothing; but that he voices those truths which appeal to the people of all ages. The grief of Lear over the dead Cordelia, the ambition of Lady Macbeth, the loves of Rosalind and Juliet, the questionings of Hamlet, interest us as much today as they did the Elizabethans. Fashions in literature may come and go, but Shakespeare’s work remains.
[Illustration: ELLEN TERRY AS LADY MACBETH. From the painting by Sargent.]
Humor.—Shakespeare had the most comprehensive sense of humor of any of the world’s great writers,—a humor that was closely related to his sympathy. It has been said that he saved his tragedies from the fatal disease of absurdity, by inoculating them with his comic virus, and that his sense of humor kept him from ever becoming shrill. This faculty enabled him to detect incongruity, to keep from overstressing a situation, to enter into the personality of others, to recover quickly from “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” and in one of his last plays, The Tempest, to welcome the “brave young world” as if he would like to play the game of life again. It was largely because of his humor that the tragedies and pain of life did not sour and subdue Shakespeare.
He soon wearies of a vacant laugh. He has only one strictly farcical play, The Comedy of Errors. There are few intellects keen enough to extract all the humor from Shakespeare. For literal minds the full comprehension of even a slight display of his humor, such as the following dialogue affords, is better exercise than the solution of an algebraic problem. Dogberry, a constable in Much Ado About Nothing, thus instructs the Watch:—
“Dogberry. You shall
comprehend all vagrom men; you are to bid
any man stand in the prince’s name.
“Watch. How if a’ will not stand?
“Dogberry. Why, then,
take no note of him, but let him go, and
presently call the rest of the watch together, and thank God you are
rid of a knave.”
Of all Shakespeare’s qualities, his humor is the hardest to describe because of its protean forms. Falstaff is his greatest humorous creation. So resourceful is he that even defeat enables him to rise like Antaeus after a fall. His humor is almost a philosophy of existence for those who love to use wit and ingenuity in trying to evade the laws of sober, orderly living. Perhaps it was for this very reason that Shakespeare consented to send so early to “Arthur’s bosom" a character who had not a little of the complexity of Hamlet.
[Illustration: FALSTAFF AND HIS PAGE. From a drawing by B. Westmacott.]