English Literature, Considered as an Interpreter of English History eBook

Henry Coppée
This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 540 pages of information about English Literature, Considered as an Interpreter of English History.

Most of these dramatists wrote in copartnership with others, and many of the plays which bear their names singly, have parts composed by colleagues.  Such was the custom of the age, and it is now very difficult to declare the distinct authorship of many of the plays.

CHAPTER XIV.

WILLIAM SHAKSPEARE.

The Power of Shakspeare.  Meagre Early History.  Doubts of his Identity.  What is known.  Marries, and goes to London.  “Venus” and “Lucrece.”  Retirement and Death.  Literary Habitudes.  Variety of the Plays.  Table of Dates and Sources.

THE POWER OF SHAKSPEARE.

We have now reached, in our search for the historic teachings in English literature, and in our consideration of the English drama, the greatest name of all, the writer whose works illustrate our position most strongly, and yet who, eminent type as he is of British culture in the age of Elizabeth, was truly and pithily declared by his friend and contemporary, Ben Jonson, to be “not for an age, but for all time.”  It is also singularly true that, even in such a work as this, Shakspeare really requires only brief notice at our hands, because he is so universally known and read:  his characters are among our familiar acquaintance; his simple but thoughtful words are incorporated in our common conversation; he is our every-day companion.  To eulogize him to the reading public is

    To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,
    To lend a perfume to the violet ...

The Bible and Shakspeare have been long conjoined as the two most necessary books in a family library; and Mrs. Cowden Clarke, the author of the Concordance to Shakspeare, has pointedly and truthfully said:  “A poor lad, possessing no other book, might on this single one make himself a gentleman and a scholar:  a poor girl, studying no other volume, might become a lady in heart and soul.”

MEAGRE EARLY HISTORY.—­It is passing strange, considering the great value of his writings, and his present fame, that of his personal history so little is known.  In the words of Steevens, one of his most successful commentators:  “All that is known, with any degree of certainty, concerning Shakspeare, is—­that he was born at Stratford upon Avon—­married and had children there—­went to London, where he commenced actor, and wrote poems and plays—­returned to Stratford, made his will, died, and was buried.”

This want of knowledge is in part due to his obscure youth, during which no one could predict what he would afterward achieve, and therefore no one took notes of his life:  to his own apparent ignorance and carelessness of his own merits, and to the low repute in which plays, and especially playwrights, were then held; although they were in reality making their age illustrious in history.  The pilgrim to Stratford sees the little low house in which he is said to have

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