A Study of Shakespeare - Part 1

Part 1

A Study of Shakespeare.

by Algernon Charles Swinburne.


Begun in the winter of 1874, a first instalment of "A Study of Shakespeare" appeared in the _Fortnightly Review_ for May 1875, and a second in the number for June 1876, but the completed work was not issued in book form until June 1880. In a letter to me (January 31, 1875), Swinburne said:

"I am now at work on my long-designed essay or study on the metrical progress or development of Shakespeare, as traceable by ear and _not_ by finger, and the general changes of tone and stages of mind expressed or involved in this change or progress of style."

The book was produced at the moment when controversy with regard to the internal evidence of composition in the writings attributed to Shakespeare was raging high, and the amusing appendices were added at the last moment that they might infuriate the pedants of the New Shakespeare Society. They amply fulfilled that amiable purpose.




The greatest poet of our age has drawn a parallel of elaborate eloquence between Shakespeare and the sea; and the likeness holds good in many points of less significance than those which have been set down by the master-hand. For two hundred years at least have students of every kind put forth in every sort of boat on a longer or a shorter voyage of research across the waters of that unsounded sea. From the paltriest fishing-craft to such majestic galleys as were steered by Coleridge and by Goethe, each division of the fleet has done or has essayed its turn of work; some busied in dredging alongsh.o.r.e, some taking surveys of this or that gulf or headland, some putting forth through shine and shadow into the darkness of the great deep. Nor does it seem as if there would sooner be an end to men's labour on this than on the other sea. But here a difference is perceptible. The material ocean has been so far mastered by the wisdom and the heroism of man that we may look for a time to come when the mystery shall be manifest of its furthest north and south, and men resolve the secret of the uttermost parts of the sea: the poles also may find their Columbus. But the limits of that other ocean, the laws of its tides, the motive of its forces, the mystery of its unity and the secret of its change, no seafarer of us all may ever think thoroughly to know. No wind-gauge will help us to the science of its storms, no lead- line sound for us the depth of its divine and terrible serenity.

As, however, each generation for some two centuries now or more has witnessed fresh attempts at pilotage and fresh expeditions of discovery undertaken in the seas of Shakespeare, it may be well to study a little the laws of navigation in such waters as these, and look well to compa.s.s and rudder before we accept the guidance of a strange helmsman or make proffer for trial of our own. There are shoals and quicksands on which many a seafarer has run his craft aground in time past, and others of more special peril to adventurers of the present day. The chances of shipwreck vary in a certain degree with each new change of vessel and each fresh muster of hands. At one time a main rock of offence on which the stoutest ships of discovery were wont to split was the narrow and slippery reef of verbal emendation; and upon this our native pilots were too many of them p.r.o.ne to steer. Others fell becalmed offsh.o.r.e in a German fog of philosophic theories, and would not be persuaded that the house of words they had built in honour of Shakespeare was "dark as h.e.l.l," seeing "it had bay-windows transparent as barricadoes, and the clear-stories towards the south-north were as l.u.s.trous as ebony." These are not the most besetting dangers of more modern steersmen: what we have to guard against now is neither a repet.i.tion of the pedantries of Steevens nor a recrudescence of the moralities of Ulrici. Fresh follies spring up in new paths of criticism, and fresh labourers in a fruitless field are at hand to gather them and to garner. A discovery of some importance has recently been proclaimed as with blare of vociferous trumpets and flutter of triumphal flags; no less a discovery than this--that a singer must be tested by his song. Well, it is something that criticism should at length be awake to that wholly indisputable fact; that learned and laborious men who can hear only with their fingers should open their eyes to admit such a novelty, their minds to accept such a paradox, as that a painter should be studied in his pictures and a poet in his verse. To the common herd of students and lovers of either art this may perhaps appear no great discovery; but that it should at length have dawned even upon the race of commentators is a sign which in itself might be taken as a presage of new light to come in an epoch of miracle yet to be. Unhappily it is as yet but a partial revelation that has been vouchsafed to them. To the recognition of the apocalyptic fact that a workman can only be known by his work, and that without examination of his method and material that work can hardly be studied to much purpose, they have yet to add the knowledge of a further truth no less recondite and abstruse than this; that as the technical work of a painter appeals to the eye, so the technical work of a poet appeals to the ear. It follows that men who have none are as likely to arrive at any profitable end by the application of metrical tests to the work of Shakespeare as a blind man by the application of his theory of colours to the work of t.i.tian.

It is certainly no news to other than professional critics that no means of study can be more precious or more necessary to a student of Shakespeare than this of tracing the course of his work by the growth and development, through various modes and changes, of his metre. But the faculty of using such means of study is not to be had for the asking; it is not to be earned by the most a.s.siduous toil, it is not to be secured by the learning of years, it is not to be attained by the devotion of a life. No proficiency in grammar and arithmetic, no science of numeration and no scheme of prosody, will be here of the least avail. Though the pedagogue were Briareus himself who would thus bring Shakespeare under the rule of his rod or Sh.e.l.ley within the limit of his line, he would lack fingers on which to count the syllables that make up their music, the infinite varieties of measure that complete the changes and the chimes of perfect verse. It is but lost labour that they rise up so early, and so late take rest; not a Scaliger or Salmasius of them all will sooner solve the riddle of the simplest than of the subtlest melody.

Least of all will the method of a scholiast be likely to serve him as a clue to the hidden things of Shakespeare. For all the counting up of numbers and casting up of figures that a whole university--nay, a whole universe of pedants could accomplish, no teacher and no learner will ever be a whit the nearer to the haven where they would be. In spite of all tabulated statements and regulated summaries of research, the music which will not be dissected or defined, the "spirit of sense" which is one and indivisible from the body or the raiment of speech that clothes it, keeps safe the secret of its sound. Yet it is no less a task than this that the scholiasts have girt themselves to achieve: they will pluck out the heart not of Hamlet's but of Shakespeare's mystery by the means of a metrical test; and this test is to be applied by a purely arithmetical process. It is useless to pretend or to protest that they work by any rule but the rule of thumb and finger: that they have no ear to work by, whatever outward show they may make of unmistakable ears, the very nature of their project gives full and d.a.m.ning proof. Properly understood, this that they call the metrical test is doubtless, as they say, the surest or the sole sure key to one side of the secret of Shakespeare; but they will never understand it properly who propose to secure it by the ingenious device of numbering the syllables and tabulating the results of a computation which shall attest in exact sequence the quant.i.ty, order, and proportion of single and double endings, of rhyme and blank verse, of regular lines and irregular, to be traced in each play by the h.o.r.n.y eye and the callous finger of a pedant. "I am ill at these numbers"; those in which I have sought to become an expert are numbers of another sort; but having, from wellnigh the first years I can remember, made of the study of Shakespeare the chief intellectual business and found in it the chief spiritual delight of my whole life, I can hardly think myself less qualified than another to offer an opinion on the metrical points at issue.

The progress and expansion of style and harmony in the successive works of Shakespeare must in some indefinite degree be perceptible to the youngest as to the oldest, to the dullest as to the keenest of Shakespearean students. But to trace and verify the various shades and gradations of this progress, the ebb and flow of alternate influences, the delicate and infinite subtleties of change and growth discernible in the spirit and the speech of the greatest among poets, is a task not less beyond the reach of a scholiast than beyond the faculties of a child. He who would attempt it with any chance of profit must above all things remember at starting that the inner and the outer qualities of a poet's work are of their very nature indivisible; that any criticism is of necessity worthless which looks to one side only, whether it be to the outer or to the inner quality of the work; that the fatuity of pedantic ignorance never devised a grosser absurdity than the attempt to separate aesthetic from scientific criticism by a strict line of demarcation, and to bring all critical work under one or the other head of this exhaustive division. Criticism without accurate science of the thing criticised can indeed have no other value than may belong to the genuine record of a spontaneous impression; but it is not less certain that criticism which busies itself only with the outer husk or technical sh.e.l.l of a great artist's work, taking no account of the spirit or the thought which informs it, cannot have even so much value as this. Without study of his forms of metre or his scheme of colours we shall certainly fail to appreciate or even to apprehend the gist or the worth of a painter's or a poet's design; but to note down the number of special words and cast up the sum of superfluous syllables used once or twice or twenty times in the structure of a single poem will help us exactly as much as a naked catalogue of the colours employed in a particular picture. A tabulated statement or summary of the precise number of blue or green, red or white draperies to be found in a precise number of paintings by the same hand will not of itself afford much enlightenment to any but the youngest of possible students; nor will a mere list of double or single, masculine or feminine terminations discoverable in a given amount of verse from the same quarter prove of much use or benefit to an adult reader of common intelligence. What such an one requires is the guidance which can be given by no metremonger or colour-grinder: the suggestion which may help him to discern at once the cause and the effect of every choice or change of metre and of colour; which may show him at one glance the reason and the result of every shade and of every tone which tends to compose and to complete the gradual scale of their final harmonies. This method of study is generally accepted as the only one applicable to the work of a great painter by any criticism worthy of the name: it should also be recognised as the sole method by which the work of a great poet can be studied to any serious purpose. For the student it can be no less useful, for the expert it should be no less easy, to trace through its several stages of expansion and transfiguration the genius of Chaucer or of Shakespeare, of Milton or of Sh.e.l.ley, than the genius of t.i.tian or of Raffaelle, of Turner or of Rossetti. Some great artists there are of either kind in whom no such process of growth or transformation is perceptible: of these are Coleridge and Blake; from the sunrise to the sunset of their working day we can trace no demonstrable increase and no visible diminution of the divine capacities or the inborn defects of either man's genius; but not of such, as a rule, are the greatest among artists of any sort.

Another rock on which modern steersmen of a more skilful hand than these are yet liable to run through too much confidence is the love of their own conjectures as to the actual date or the secret history of a particular play or pa.s.sage. To err on this side requires more thought, more learning, and more ingenuity than we need think to find in a whole tribe of finger-counters and figure-casters; but the outcome of these good gifts, if strained or perverted to capricious use, may prove no less barren of profit than the labours of a pedant on the letter of the text.

It is a tempting exercise of intelligence for a dexterous and keen-witted scholar to apply his solid learning and his vivid fancy to the detection or the interpretation of some new or obscure point in a great man's life or work; but none the less is it a perilous pastime to give the reins to a learned fancy, and let loose conjecture on the trail of any dubious crotchet or the scent of any supposed allusion that may spring up in the way of its confident and eager quest. To start a new solution of some crucial problem, to track some new undercurrent of concealed significance in a pa.s.sage hitherto neglected or misconstrued, is to a critic of this higher cla.s.s a delight as keen as that of scientific discovery to students of another sort: the pity is that he can bring no such certain or immediate test to verify the value of his discovery as lies ready to the hand of the man of science. Whether he have lit upon a windfall or a mare's nest can be decided by no direct proof, but only by time and the general acceptance of competent judges; and this cannot often be reasonably expected for theories which can appeal for support or confirmation to no positive evidence, but at best to a cloudy and shifting probability. What personal or political allusions may lurk under the text of Shakespeare we can never know, and should consequently forbear to hang upon a hypothesis of this floating and nebulous kind any serious opinion which might gravely affect our estimate of his work or his position in regard to other men, with whom some public or private interest may possibly have brought him into contact or collision.

The aim of the present study is simply to set down what the writer believes to be certain demonstrable truths as to the progress and development of style, the outer and the inner changes of manner as of matter, of method as of design, which may be discerned in the work of Shakespeare. The principle here adopted and the views here put forward have not been suddenly discovered or lightly taken up out of any desire to make a show of theoretical ingenuity. For years past I have held and maintained, in private discussion with friends and fellow-students, the opinions which I now submit to more public judgment. How far they may coincide with those advanced by others I cannot say, and have not been careful to inquire. The mere fact of coincidence or of dissent on such a question is of less importance than the principle accepted by either student as the groundwork of his theory, the mainstay of his opinion. It is no part of my project or my hope to establish the actual date of any among the various plays, or to determine point by point the lineal order of their succession. I have examined no table or catalogue of recent or of earlier date, from the time of Malone onwards, with a view to confute by my reasoning the conclusions of another, or by the a.s.sistance of his theories to corroborate my own. It is impossible to fix or decide by inner or outer evidence the precise order of production, much less of composition, which critics of the present or the past may have set their wits to verify in vain; but it is quite possible to show that the work of Shakespeare is naturally divisible into cla.s.ses which may serve us to distinguish and determine as by landmarks the several stages or periods of his mind and art.

Of these the three chief periods or stages are so unmistakably indicated by the mere text itself, and so easily recognisable by the veriest tiro in the school of Shakespeare, that even were I as certain of being the first to point them out as I am conscious of having long since discovered and verified them without a.s.sistance or suggestion from any but Shakespeare himself, I should be disposed to claim but little credit for a discovery which must in all likelihood have been forestalled by the common insight of some hundred or more students in time past. The difficulty begins with the really debatable question of subdivisions.

There are certain plays which may be said to hang on the borderland between one period and the next, with one foot lingering and one advanced; and these must be cla.s.sed according to the dominant note of their style, the greater or lesser proportion of qualities proper to the earlier or the later stage of thought and writing. At one time I was inclined to think the whole catalogue more accurately divisible into four cla.s.ses; but the line of demarcation between the third and fourth would have been so much fainter than those which mark off the first period from the second, and the second from the third, that it seemed on the whole a more correct and adequate arrangement to a.s.sume that the last period might be subdivided if necessary into a first and second stage. This somewhat precise and pedantic scheme of study I have adopted from no love of rigid or formal system, but simply to make the method of my critical process as clear as the design. That design is to examine by internal evidence alone the growth and the expression of spirit and of speech, the ebb and flow of thought and style, discernible in the successive periods of Shakespeare's work; to study the phases of mind, the changes of tone, the pa.s.sage or progress from an old manner to a new, the reversion or relapse from a later to an earlier habit, which may a.s.suredly be traced in the modulations of his varying verse, but can only be traced by ear and not by finger. I have busied myself with no baseless speculations as to the possible or probable date of the first appearance of this play or of that on the stage; and it is not unlikely that the order of succession here adopted or suggested may not always coincide with the chronological order of production; nor will the principle or theory by which I have undertaken to cla.s.s the successive plays of each period be affected or impaired though it should chance that a play ranked by me as belonging to a later stage of work should actually have been produced earlier than others which in my lists are a.s.signed to a subsequent date. It is not, so to speak, the literal but the spiritual order which I have studied to observe and to indicate: the periods which I seek to define belong not to chronology but to art. No student need be reminded how common a thing it is to recognise in the later work of a great artist some partial reappearance of his early tone or manner, some pa.s.sing return to his early lines of work and to habits of style since modified or abandoned.

Such work, in part at least, may properly be said to belong rather to the earlier stage whose manner it resumes than to the later stage at which it was actually produced, and in which it stands out as a marked exception among the works of the same period. A famous and a most singularly beautiful example of this reflorescence as in a Saint Martin's summer of undecaying genius is the exquisite and crowning love-scene in the opera or "ballet-tragedy" of _Psyche_, written in his sixty-fifth year by the august Roman hand of Pierre Corneille; a lyric symphony of spirit and of song fulfilled with all the colour and all the music that autumn could steal from spring if October had leave to go a Maying in some Olympian masquerade of melody and sunlight. And it is not easier, easy as it is, to discern and to define the three main stages of Shakespeare's work and progress, than to cla.s.sify under their several heads the representative plays belonging to each period by the law of their nature, if not by the accident of their date. There are certain dominant qualities which do on the whole distinguish not only the later from the earlier plays, but the second period from the first, the third period from the second; and it is with these qualities alone that the higher criticism, be it aesthetic or scientific, has properly anything to do.

A new method of solution has been applied to various difficulties which have been discovered or invented in the text by the care or the perversity of recent commentators, whose principle of explanation is easier to abuse than to use with any likelihood of profit. It is at least simple enough for the simplest of critics to apply or misapply: whenever they see or suspect an inequality or an incongruity which may be wholly imperceptible to eyes uninured to the use of their spectacles, they a.s.sume at once the presence of another workman, the intrusion of a stranger's hand. This supposition of a double authorship is naturally as impossible to refute as to establish by other than internal evidence and appeal to the private judgment or perception of the reader. But it is no better than the last resource of an empiric, the last refuge of a sciolist; a refuge which the soundest of scholars will be slowest to seek, a resource which the most competent of critics will be least ready to adopt. Once admitted as a principle of general application, there are no lengths to which it may not carry, there are none to which it has not carried, the audacious fatuity and the arrogant incompetence of tamperers with the authentic text. Recent editors who have taken on themselves the high office of guiding English youth in its first study of Shakespeare have proposed to excise or to obelise whole pa.s.sages which the delight and wonder of youth and age alike, of the rawest as of the ripest among students, have agreed to consecrate as examples of his genius at its highest. In the last trumpet-notes of Macbeth's defiance and despair, in the last rallying cry of the hero reawakened in the tyrant at his utmost hour of need, there have been men and scholars, Englishmen and editors, who have detected the alien voice of a pretender, the false ring of a foreign blast that was not blown by Shakespeare; words that for centuries past have touched with fire the hearts of thousands in each age since they were first inspired--words with the whole sound in them of battle or a breaking sea, with the whole soul of pity and terror mingled and melted into each other in the fierce last speech of a spirit grown "aweary of the sun," have been calmly transferred from the account of Shakespeare to the score of Middleton. And this, forsooth, the student of the future is to accept on the authority of men who bring to the support of their decision the unanswerable plea of years spent in the collation and examination of texts never hitherto explored and compared with such energy of learned labour. If this be the issue of learning and of industry, the most indolent and ignorant of readers who retains his natural capacity to be moved and mastered by the natural delight of contact with heavenly things is better off by far than the most studious and strenuous of all scholiasts who ever claimed acquiescence or challenged dissent on the strength of his lifelong labours and hard-earned knowledge of the letter of the text. Such an one is indeed "in a parlous state"; and any boy whose heart first begins to burn within him, who feels his blood kindle and his spirit dilate, his pulse leap and his eyes lighten, over a first study of Shakespeare, may say to such a teacher with better reason than Touchstone said to Corin, "Truly, thou art d.a.m.ned; like an ill-roasted egg, all on one side." Nor could charity itself hope much profit for him from the moving appeal and the pious prayer which temper that severity of sentence--"Wilt thou rest d.a.m.ned?

G.o.d help thee, shallow man! G.o.d make incision in thee! Thou art raw."

And raw he is like to remain for all his learning, and for all incisions that can be made in the h.o.r.n.y hide of a self-conceit to be pierced by the puncture of no man's pen. It was bad enough while theorists of this breed confined themselves to the suggestion of a possible partnership with Fletcher, a possible interpolation by Jonson; but in the descent from these to the alleged adulteration of the text by Middleton and Rowley we have surely sounded the very lowest depth of folly attainable by the utmost alacrity in sinking which may yet be possible to the b.a.s.t.a.r.d brood of Scriblerus. For my part, I shall not be surprised though the next discoverer should a.s.sure us that half at least of _Hamlet_ is evidently due to the collaboration of Heywood, while the greater part of _Oth.e.l.lo_ is as clearly a.s.signable to the hand of Shirley.

Akin to this form of folly, but less pernicious though not more profitable, is the fancy of inventing some share for Shakespeare in the composition of plays which the veriest insanity of conjecture or caprice could not venture to lay wholly to his charge. This fancy, comparatively harmless as it is, requires no ground of proof to go upon, no prop of likelihood to support it; without so much help as may be borrowed from the faintest and most fitful of traditions, it spins its own evidence spider-like out of its own inner conscience or conceit, and proffers it with confident complacency for men's acceptance. Here again I cannot but see a mere waste of fruitless learning and bootless ingenuity. That Shakespeare began by retouching and recasting the work of elder and lesser men we all know; that he may afterwards have set his hand to the task of adding or altering a line or a pa.s.sage here and there in some few of the plays brought out under his direction as manager or proprietor of a theatre is of course possible, but can neither be affirmed nor denied with any profit in default of the least fragment of historic or traditional evidence. Any attempt to verify the imaginary touch of his hand in plays of whose history we know no more than that they were acted on the boards of his theatre can be but a diversion for the restless leisure of ingenious and ambitious scholars; it will give no clue by which the student who simply seeks to know what can be known with certainty of the poet and his work may hope to be guided towards any safe issue or trustworthy result. Less pardonable and more presumptuous than this is the pretension of minor critics to dissect an authentic play of Shakespeare scene by scene, and a.s.sign different parts of the same poem to different dates by the same pedagogic rules of numeration and mensuration which they would apply to the general question of the order and succession of his collective works. This vivisection of a single poem is not defensible as a freak of scholarship, an excursion beyond the bounds of bare proof, from which the wanderer may chance to bring back, if not such treasure as he went out to seek, yet some stray G.o.dsend or rare literary windfall which may serve to excuse his indulgence in the seemingly profitless pastime of a truant disposition. It is a pure impertinence to affirm with oracular a.s.surance what might perhaps be admissible as a suggestion offered with the due diffidence of modest and genuine scholarship; to a.s.sert on the strength of a private pedant's personal intuition that such must be the history or such the composition of a great work whose history he alone could tell, whose composition he alone could explain, who gave it to us as his genius had given it to him.

From these several rocks and quicksands I trust at least to keep my humbler course at a safe distance, and steer clear of all sandy shallows of theory or sunken shoals of hypothesis on which no pilot can be certain of safe anchorage; avoiding all a.s.sumption, though never so plausible, for which no ground but that of fancy can be shown, all suggestion though never so ingenious for which no proof but that of conjecture can be advanced. For instance, I shall neither a.s.sume nor accept the theory of a double authorship or of a double date by which the supposed inequalities may be accounted for, the supposed difficulties may be swept away, which for certain readers disturb the study of certain plays of Shakespeare. Only where universal tradition and the general concurrence of all reasonable critics past and present combine to indicate an unmistakable difference of touch or an unmistakable diversity of date between this and that portion of the same play, or where the internal evidence of interpolation perceptible to the most careless and undeniable by the most perverse of readers is supported by the public judgment of men qualified to express and competent to defend an opinion, have I thought it allowable to adopt this facile method of explanation. No scholar, for example, believes in the single authorship of _Pericles_ or _Andronicus_; none, I suppose, would now question the part taken by some hireling or journeyman in the arrangement or completion for the stage of _Timon of Athens_; and few probably would refuse to admit a doubt of the total authenticity or uniform workmanship of the _Taming of the Shrew_.

As few, I hope, are prepared to follow the fantastic and confident suggestions of every unquiet and arrogant innovator who may seek to append his name to the long scroll of Shakespearean parasites by the display of a brand-new hypothesis as to the uncertain date or authorship of some pa.s.sage or some play which has never before been subjected to the scientific scrutiny of such a pertinacious a.n.a.lyst. The more modest design of the present study has in part been already indicated, and will explain as it proceeds if there be anything in it worth explanation. It is no part of my ambition to loose the Gordian knots which others who found them indissoluble have sought in vain to cut in sunder with blunter swords than the Macedonian; but after so many adventures and attempts there may perhaps yet be room for an attempt yet unessayed; for a study by the ear alone of Shakespeare's metrical progress, and a study by light of the knowledge thus obtained of the corresponsive progress within, which found expression and embodiment in these outward and visible changes. The one study will be then seen to be the natural complement and the inevitable consequence of the other; and the patient pursuit of the simpler and more apprehensible object of research will appear as the only sure method by which a reasonable and faithful student may think to attain so much as the porch or entrance to that higher knowledge which no faithful and reasonable study of Shakespeare can ever for a moment fail to keep in sight as the haven of its final hope, the goal of its ultimate labour.

When Christopher Marlowe came up to London from Cambridge, a boy in years, a man in genius, and a G.o.d in ambition, he found the stage which he was born to transfigure and re-create by the might and masterdom of his genius enc.u.mbered with a litter of rude rhyming farces and tragedies which the first wave of his imperial hand swept so utterly out of sight and hearing that hardly by piecing together such fragments of that buried rubbish as it is now possible to unearth can we rebuild in imagination so much of the rough and crumbling walls that fell before the trumpet-blast of _Tamburlaine_ as may give us some conception of the rabble dynasty of rhymers whom he overthrew--of the citadel of dramatic barbarism which was stormed and sacked at the first charge of the young conqueror who came to lead English audiences and to deliver English poetry

From jigging veins of rhyming mother-wits, And such conceits as clownage keeps in pay.

When we speak of the drama that existed before the coming of Marlowe, and that vanished at his advent, we think usually of the rhyming plays written wholly or mainly in ballad verse of fourteen syllables--of the _Kings Darius_ and _Cambyses_, the _Promos and Ca.s.sandra_ of Whetstone, or the _Sir Clyomon and Sir Clamydes_ of George Peele. If we turn from these abortions of tragedy to the metrical farces which may fairly be said to contain the germ or embryo of English comedy (a form of dramatic art which certainly owes nothing to the father of our tragic stage), we find far more of hope and promise in the broad free stretches of the flagellant head-master of Eton and the bibulous Bishop of Bath and Wells; and must admit that hands used to wield the crosier or the birch proved themselves more skilful at the lighter labours of the stage, more successful even in the secular and bloodless business of a field neither clerical nor scholastic, than any tragic rival of the opposite party to that so jovially headed by Orbilius Udall and Silenus Still. These twin pillars of church and school and stage were strong enough to support on the shoulders of their authority the first crude fabric or formless model of our comic theatre, while the tragic boards were still creaking and cracking under the jingling canter of _Cambyses_ or the tuneless tramp of _Gorboduc_. This one play which the charity of Sidney excepts from his general anathema on the nascent stage of England has. .h.i.therto been erroneously described as written in blank verse; an error which I can only attribute to the prevalence of a groundless a.s.sumption that whatever is neither prose nor rhyme must of necessity be definable as blank verse.

But the measure, I must repeat, which was adopted by the authors of _Gorboduc_ is by no means so definable. Blank it certainly is; but verse it a.s.suredly is not. There can be no verse where there is no modulation, no rhythm where there is no music. Blank verse came into life in England at the birth of the shoemaker's son who had but to open his yet beardless lips, and the high-born poem which had Sackville to father and Sidney to sponsor was silenced and eclipsed for ever among the poor plebeian crowd of rhyming shadows that waited in death on the n.o.ble nothingness of its patrician shade.

These, I suppose, are the first or the only plays whose names recur to the memory of the general reader when he thinks of the English stage before Marlowe; but there was, I suspect, a whole cla.s.s of plays then current, and more or less supported by popular favour, of which hardly a sample is now extant, and which cannot be cla.s.sed with such as these. The poets or rhymesters who supplied them had already seen good to clip the c.u.mbrous and bedraggled skirts of those dreary verses, run all to seed and weed, which jingled their thin bells at the tedious end of fourteen weary syllables; and for this curtailment of the shambling and sprawling lines which had hitherto done duty as tragic metre some credit may be due to these obscure purveyors of forgotten ware for the second epoch of our stage: if indeed, as I presume, we may suppose that this reform, such as it was, had begun before the time of Marlowe; otherwise, no doubt, little credit would be due to men who with so high an example before them were content simply to snip away the tags and fringes, to patch the seams and tatters, of the ragged coat of rhyme which they might have exchanged for that royal robe of heroic verse wherewith he had clothed the ungrown limbs of limping and lisping tragedy. But if these also may be reckoned among his precursors, the dismissal from stage service of the dolorous and drudging metre employed by the earliest school of theatrical rhymesters must be taken to mark a real step in advance; and in that case we possess at least a single example of the rhyming tragedies which had their hour between the last plays written wholly or partially in ballad metre and the first plays written in blank verse. The tragedy of _Selimus, Emperor of the Turks_, published in 1594, {30} may then serve to indicate this brief and obscure period of transition. Whole scenes of this singular play are written in rhyming iambics, some in the measure of _Don Juan_, some in the measure of _Venus and Adonis_. The couplets and quatrains so much affected and so reluctantly abandoned by Shakespeare after the first stage of his dramatic progress are in no other play that I know of diversified by this alternate variation of _sesta_ with _ottava rima_. This may have been an exceptional experiment due merely to the caprice of one eccentric rhymester; but in any case we may a.s.sume it to mark the extreme limit, the ultimate development of rhyming tragedy after the ballad metre had been happily exploded. The play is on other grounds worth attention as a sign of the times, though on poetical grounds it is a.s.suredly worth none. Part of it is written in blank verse, or at least in rhymeless lines; so that after all it probably followed in the wake of _Tamburlaine_, half adopting and half rejecting the innovations of that fiery reformer, who wrought on the old English stage no less a miracle than _Hernani_ on the French stage in the days of our fathers. That _Selimus_ was published four years later than _Tamburlaine_, in the year following the death of Marlowe, proves of course nothing as to the date of its production; and even if it was written and acted in the year of its publication, it undoubtedly in the main represents the work of a prior era to the reformation of the stage by Marlowe. The level regularity of its unrhymed scenes is just like that of the weaker portions of _t.i.tus Andronicus_ and the _First Part of King Henry the Sixth_--the opening scene, for example, of either play. With _Andronicus_ it has also in common the quality of exceptional monstrosity, a delight in the parade of mutilation as well as of ma.s.sacre. It seems to me possible that the same hand may have been at work on all three plays; for that Marlowe's is traceable in those parts of the two retouched by Shakespeare which bear no traces of his touch is a theory to the full as absurd as that which would impute to Shakespeare the charge of their entire composition.

The revolution effected by Marlowe naturally raised the same cry against its author as the revolution effected by Hugo. That Shakespeare should not at once have enlisted under his banner is less inexplicable than it may seem. He was naturally addicted to rhyme, though if we put aside the Sonnets we must admit that in rhyme he never did anything worth Marlowe's _Hero and Leander_: he did not, like Marlowe, see at once that it must be reserved for less active forms of poetry than the tragic drama; and he was personally, it seems, in opposition to Marlowe and his school of academic playwrights--the band of bards in which Oxford and Cambridge were respectively and so respectably represented by Peele and Greene. But in his very first plays, comic or tragic or historic, we can see the collision and conflict of the two influences; his evil angel, rhyme, yielding step by step and note by note to the strong advance of that better genius who came to lead him into the loftier path of Marlowe.

There is not a single pa.s.sage in _t.i.tus Andronicus_ more Shakespearean than the magnificent quatrain of Tamora upon the eagle and the little birds; but the rest of the scene in which we come upon it, and the whole scene preceding, are in blank verse of more variety and vigour than we find in the baser parts of the play; and these if any scenes we may surely attribute to Shakespeare. Again, the last battle of Talbot seems to me as undeniably the master's work as the scene in the Temple Gardens or the courtship of Margaret by Suffolk; this latter indeed, full as it is of natural and vivid grace, may perhaps not be beyond the highest reach of one or two among the rivals of his earliest years of work; while as we are certain that he cannot have written the opening scene, that he was at any stage of his career incapable of it, so may we believe as well as hope that he is guiltless of any complicity in that detestable part of the play which attempts to defile the memory of the virgin saviour of her country. {33} In style it is not, I think, above the range of George Peele at his best: and to have written even the last of those scenes can add but little discredit to the memory of a man already disgraced as the defamer of Eleanor of Castile; while it would be a relief to feel a.s.sured that there was but one English poet of any genius who could be capable of either villainy.

In this play, then, more decisively than in _t.i.tus Andronicus_, we find Shakespeare at work (so to speak) with both hands--with his left hand of rhyme, and his right hand of blank verse. The left is loth to forego the practice of its peculiar music; yet, as the action of the right grows freer and its touch grows stronger, it becomes more and more certain that the other must cease playing, under pain of producing mere discord and disturbance in the scheme of tragic harmony. We imagine that the writer must himself have felt the scene of the roses to be pitched in a truer key than the n.o.ble scene of parting between the old hero and his son on the verge of desperate battle and certain death. This is the last and loftiest farewell note of rhyming tragedy; still, in _King Richard II_, and in _Romeo and Juliet_, it struggles for awhile to keep its footing, but now more visibly in vain. The rhymed scenes in these plays are too plainly the survivals of a ruder and feebler stage of work; they cannot hold their own in the new order with even such discordant effect of incongruous excellence and inharmonious beauty as belongs to the death- scene of the Talbots when matched against the quarrelling scene of Somerset and York. Yet the briefest glance over the plays of the first epoch in the work of Shakespeare will suffice to show how protracted was the struggle and how gradual the defeat of rhyme. Setting aside the retouched plays, we find on the list one tragedy, two histories, and four if not five comedies, which the least critical reader would attribute to this first epoch of work. In three of these comedies rhyme can hardly be said to be beaten; that is, the rhyming scenes are on the whole equal to the unrhymed in power and beauty. In the single tragedy, and in one of the two histories, we may say that rhyme fights hard for life, but is undeniably worsted; that is, they contain as to quant.i.ty a large proportion of rhymed verse, but as to quality the rhymed part bears no proportion whatever to the unrhymed. In two scenes we may say that the whole heart or spirit of _Romeo and Juliet_ is summed up and distilled into perfect and pure expression; and these two are written in blank verse of equable and blameless melody. Outside the garden scene in the second act and the balcony scene in the third, there is much that is fanciful and graceful, much of elegiac pathos and fervid if fantastic pa.s.sion; much also of superfluous rhetoric and (as it were) of wordy melody, which flows and foams. .h.i.ther and thither into something of extravagance and excess; but in these two there is no flaw, no outbreak, no superflux, and no failure. Throughout certain scenes of the third and fourth acts I think it may be reasonably and reverently allowed that the river of verse has broken its banks, not as yet through the force and weight of its gathering stream, but merely through the weakness of the barriers or boundaries found insufficient to confine it. And here we may with deference venture on a guess why Shakespeare was so long so loth to forego the restraint of rhyme. When he wrote, and even when he rewrote or at least retouched, his youngest tragedy he had not yet strength to walk straight in the steps of the mighty master, but two months older than himself by birth, whose foot never from the first faltered in the arduous path of severer tragic verse. The loveliest of love-plays is after all a child of "his salad days, when he was green in judgment,"

though a.s.suredly not "cold in blood"--a physical condition as difficult to conceive of Shakespeare at any age as of Cleopatra. It is in the scenes of vehement pa.s.sion, of ardour and of agony, that we feel the comparative weakness of a yet ungrown hand, the tentative uncertain grasp of a stripling giant. The two utterly beautiful scenes are not of this kind; they deal with simple joy and with simple sorrow, with the gladness of meeting and the sadness of parting love; but between and behind them come scenes of more fierce emotion, full of surprise, of violence, of unrest; and with these the poet is not yet (if I dare say so) quite strong enough to deal. Apollo has not yet put on the sinews of Hercules.

At a later date we may fancy or may find that when the Herculean muscle is full-grown the voice in him which was as the voice of Apollo is for a pa.s.sing moment impaired. In _Measure for Measure_, where the adult and gigantic G.o.d has grappled with the greatest and most terrible of energies and of pa.s.sions, we miss the music of a younger note that rang through _Romeo and Juliet_; but before the end this too revives, as pure, as sweet, as fresh, but richer now and deeper than its first clear notes of the morning, in the heavenly harmony of _Cymbeline_ and _The Tempest_.

The same effusion or effervescence of words is perceptible in _King Richard II_. as in the greater (and the less good) part of _Romeo and Juliet_; and not less perceptible is the perpetual inclination of the poet to revert for help to rhyme, to hark back in search of support towards the half-forsaken habits of his poetic nonage. Feeling his foothold insecure on the hard and high ascent of the steeps of rhymeless verse, he stops and slips back ever and anon towards the smooth and marshy meadow whence he has hardly begun to climb. Any student who should wish to examine the conditions of the struggle at its height may be content to a.n.a.lyse the first act of this the first historical play of Shakespeare. As the tragedy moves onward, and the style gathers strength while the action gathers speed,--as (to borrow the phrase so admirably applied by Coleridge to Dryden) the poet's chariot-wheels get hot by driving fast,--the temptation of rhyme grows weaker, and the hand grows firmer which before lacked strength to wave it off. The one thing wholly or greatly admirable in this play is the exposition of the somewhat pitiful but not unpitiable character of King Richard. Among the scenes devoted to this exposition I of course include the whole of the death- scene of Gaunt, as well the part which precedes as the part which follows the actual appearance of his nephew on the stage; and into these scenes the intrusion of rhyme is rare and brief. They are written almost wholly in pure and fluent rather than vigorous or various blank verse; though I cannot discern in any of them an equality in power and pa.s.sion to the magnificent scene of abdication in Marlowe's _Edward II_. This play, I think, must undoubtedly be regarded as the immediate model of Shakespeare's; and the comparison is one of inexhaustible interest to all students of dramatic poetry. To the highest height of the earlier master I do not think that the mightier poet who was as yet in great measure his pupil has ever risen in this the first (as I take it) of his historic plays. Of composition and proportion he has perhaps already a somewhat better idea. But in grasp of character, always excepting the one central figure of the piece, we find his hand as yet the unsteadier of the two.

Even after a lifelong study of this as of all other plays of Shakespeare, it is for me at least impossible to determine what I doubt if the poet could himself have clearly defined--the main principle, the motive and the meaning of such characters as York, Norfolk, and Aumerle. The Gaveston and the Mortimer of Marlowe are far more solid and definite figures than these; yet none after that of Richard is more important to the scheme of Shakespeare. They are fitful, shifting, vaporous: their outlines change, withdraw, dissolve, and "leave not a rack behind." They, not Antony, are like the clouds of evening described in the most glorious of so many glorious pa.s.sages put long afterwards by Shakespeare into the mouth of his latest Roman hero. They "cannot hold this visible shape" in which the poet at first presents them even long enough to leave a distinct image, a decisive impression for better or for worse, upon the mind's eye of the most simple and open-hearted reader. They are ghosts, not men; _simulacra modis pallentia miris_. You cannot descry so much as the original intention of the artist's hand which began to draw and relaxed its hold of the brush before the first lines were fairly traced.

And in the last, the worst and weakest scene of all, in which York pleads with Bolingbroke for the death of the son whose mother pleads against her husband for his life, there is a final relapse into rhyme and rhyming epigram, into the "jigging vein" dried up (we might have hoped) long since by the very glance of Marlowe's Apollonian scorn. It would be easy, agreeable, and irrational to ascribe without further evidence than its badness this misconceived and misshapen scene to some other hand than Shakespeare's. It is below the weakest, the rudest, the hastiest scene attributable to Marlowe; it is false, wrong, artificial beyond the worst of his bad and boyish work; but it has a certain likeness for the worse to the crudest work of Shakespeare. It is difficult to say to what depths of bad taste the writer of certain pa.s.sages in _Venus and Adonis_ could not fall before his genius or his judgment was full-grown. To invent an earlier play on the subject and imagine this scene a surviving fragment, a floating waif of that imaginary wreck, would in my opinion be an uncritical mode of evading the question at issue. It must be regarded as the last hysterical struggle of rhyme to maintain its place in tragedy; and the explanation, I would fain say the excuse, of its reappearance may perhaps be simply this; that the poet was not yet dramatist enough to feel for each of his characters an equal or proportionate regard; to divide and disperse his interest among the various crowd of figures which claim each in its place, and each after its kind, fair and adequate share of their creator's attention and sympathy. His present interest was here wholly concentrated on the single figure of Richard; and when that for the time was absent, the subordinate figures became to him but heavy and vexatious enc.u.mbrances, to be shifted on and off the stage with as much of haste and as little of labour as might be possible to an impatient and uncertain hand. Now all tragic poets, I presume, from AEschylus the G.o.dlike father of them all to the last aspirant who may struggle after the traces of his steps, have been poets before they were tragedians; their lips have had power to sing before their feet had strength to tread the stage, before their hands had skill to paint or carve figures from the life. With Shakespeare it was so as certainly as with Sh.e.l.ley, as evidently as with Hugo. It is in the great comic poets, in Moliere and in Congreve, {42} our own lesser Moliere, so far inferior in breadth and depth, in tenderness and strength, to the greatest writer of the "great age," yet so near him in science and in skill, so like him in brilliance and in force;--it is in these that we find theatrical instinct twin-born with imaginative impulse, dramatic power with inventive perception.

In the second historic play which can be wholly ascribed to Shakespeare we still find the poetic or rhetorical duality for the most part in excess of the dramatic; but in _King Richard III_. the bonds of rhyme at least are fairly broken. This only of all Shakespeare's plays belongs absolutely to the school of Marlowe. The influence of the elder master, and that influence alone, is perceptible from end to end. Here at last we can see that Shakespeare has decidedly chosen his side. It is as fiery in pa.s.sion, as single in purpose, as rhetorical often though never so inflated in expression, as _Tamburlaine_ itself. It is doubtless a better piece of work than Marlowe ever did; I dare not say, than Marlowe ever could have done. It is not for any man to measure, above all is it not for any workman in the field of tragic poetry lightly to take on himself the responsibility or the authority to p.r.o.nounce, what it is that Christopher Marlowe could not have done; but, dying as he did and when he did, it is certain that he has not left us a work so generally and so variously admirable as _King Richard III_. As certain is it that but for him this play could never have been written. At a later date the subject would have been handled otherwise, had the poet chosen to handle it at all; and in his youth he could not have treated it as he has without the guidance and example of Marlowe. Not only are its highest qualities of energy, of exuberance, of pure and lofty style, of sonorous and successive harmonies, the very qualities that never fail to distinguish those first dramatic models which were fashioned by his ardent hand; the strenuous and single-handed grasp of character, the motion and action of combining and contending powers, which here for the first time we find sustained with equal and unfaltering vigour throughout the length of a whole play, we perceive, though imperfectly, in the work of Marlowe before we can trace them even as latent or infant forces in the work of Shakespeare.

In the exquisite and delightful comedies of his earliest period we can hardly discern any sign, any promise of them at all. One only of these, the _Comedy of Errors_, has in it anything of dramatic composition and movement; and what it has of these, I need hardly remind the most cursory of students, is due by no means to Shakespeare. What is due to him, and to him alone, is the honour of having embroidered on the naked old canvas of comic action those flowers of elegiac beauty which vivify and diversify the scene of Plautus as reproduced by the art of Shakespeare.

In the next generation so n.o.ble a poet as Rotrou, whom perhaps it might not be inaccurate to call the French Marlowe, and who had (what Marlowe had not) the gift of comic as well as of tragic excellence, found nothing of this kind and little of any kind to add to the old poet's admirable but arid sketch of farcical incident or accident. But in this light and lovely work of the youth of Shakespeare we find for the first time that strange and sweet admixture of farce with fancy, of lyric charm with comic effect, which recurs so often in his later work, from the date of _As You Like It_ to the date of the _Winter's Tale_, and which no later poet had ventured to recombine in the same play till our own time had given us, in the author of _Tragaldabas_, one who could alternate without confusing the woodland courtship of Eliseo and Caprina with the tavern braggardism of Grif and Minotoro. The sweetness and simplicity of lyric or elegiac loveliness which fill and inform the scenes where Adriana, her sister, and the Syracusan Antipholus exchange the expression of their errors and their loves, belong to Shakespeare alone; and may help us to understand how the young poet who at the outset of his divine career had struck into this fresh untrodden path of poetic comedy should have been, as we have seen that he was, loth to learn from another and an alien teacher the hard and necessary lesson that this flowery path would never lead him towards the loftier land of tragic poetry. For as yet, even in the nominally or intentionally tragic and historic work of the first period, we descry always and everywhere and still preponderant the lyric element, the fantastic element, or even the elegiac element. All these queens and heroines of history and tragedy have rather an Ovidian than a Sophoclean grace of bearing and of speech.

The example afforded by the _Comedy of Errors_ would suffice to show that rhyme, however inadequate for tragic use, is by no means a bad instrument for romantic comedy. In another of Shakespeare's earliest works, which might almost be described as a lyrical farce, rhyme plays also a great part; but the finest pa.s.sage, the real crown and flower of _Love's Labour's Lost_, is the praise or apology of love spoken by Biron in blank verse. This is worthy of Marlowe for dignity and sweetness, but has also the grace of a light and radiant fancy enamoured of itself, begotten between thought and mirth, a child-G.o.d with grave lips and laughing eyes, whose inspiration is nothing akin to Marlowe's. In this as in the overture of the play and in its closing scene, but especially in the n.o.ble pa.s.sage which winds up for a year the courtship of Biron and Rosaline, the spirit which informs the speech of the poet is finer of touch and deeper of tone than in the sweetest of the serious interludes of the _Comedy of Errors_. The play is in the main a yet lighter thing, and more wayward and capricious in build, more formless and fantastic in plot, more incomposite altogether than that first heir of Shakespeare's comic invention, which on its own ground is perfect in its consistency, blameless in composition and coherence; while in _Love's Labour's Lost_ the fancy for the most part runs wild as the wind, and the structure of the story is as that of a house of clouds which the wind builds and unbuilds at pleasure. Here we find a very riot of rhymes, wild and wanton in their half-grown grace as a troop of "young satyrs, tender-hoofed and ruddy-horned"; during certain scenes we seem almost to stand again by the cradle of new-born comedy, and hear the first lisping and laughing accents run over from her baby lips in bubbling rhyme; but when the note changes we recognise the speech of G.o.ds. For the first time in our literature the higher key of poetic or romantic comedy is finely touched to a fine issue. The divine instrument fashioned by Marlowe for tragic purposes alone has found at once its new sweet use in the hands of Shakespeare. The way is prepared for _As You Like It_ and the _Tempest_; the language is discovered which will befit the lips of Rosalind and Miranda.

What was highest as poetry in the _Comedy of Errors_ was mainly in rhyme; all indeed, we might say, between the prelude spoken by AEgeon and the appearance in the last scene of his wife: in _Love's Labour's Lost_ what was highest was couched wholly in blank verse; in the _Two Gentlemen of Verona_ rhyme has fallen seemingly into abeyance, and there are no pa.s.sages of such elegiac beauty as in the former, of such exalted eloquence as in the latter of these plays; there is an even sweetness, a simple equality of grace in thought and language which keeps the whole poem in tune, written as it is in a subdued key of unambitious harmony.

In perfect unity and keeping the composition of this beautiful sketch may perhaps be said to mark a stage of advance, a new point of work attained, a faint but sensible change of manner, signalised by increased firmness of hand and clearness of outline. Slight and swift in execution as it is, few and simple as are the chords here struck of character and emotion, every shade of drawing and every note of sound is at one with the whole scheme of form and music. Here too is the first dawn of that higher and more tender humour which was never given in such perfection to any man as ultimately to Shakespeare; one touch of the by-play of Launce and his immortal dog is worth all the bright fantastic interludes of Boyet and Adriano, Costard and Holofernes; worth even half the sallies of Mercutio, and half the dancing doggrel or broad-witted prose of either Dromio. But in the final poem which concludes and crowns the first epoch of Shakespeare's work, the special graces and peculiar glories of each that went before are gathered together as in one garland "of every hue and every scent." The young genius of the master of all our poets finds its consummation in the _Midsummer Night's Dream_. The blank verse is as full, sweet, and strong as the best of Biron's or Romeo's; the rhymed verse as clear, pure, and true as the simplest and truest melody of _Venus and Adonis_ or the _Comedy of Errors_. But here each kind of excellence is equal throughout; there are here no purple patches on a gown of serge, but one seamless and imperial robe of a single dye. Of the lyric or the prosaic part, the counterchange of loves and laughters, of fancy fine as air and imagination high as heaven, what need can there be for any one to shame himself by the helpless attempt to say some word not utterly unworthy? Let it suffice us to accept this poem as the landmark of our first stage, and pause to look back from it on what lies behind us of partial or of perfect work.

The highest point attained in this first period lies in the domain of comedy or romance, and belongs as much to lyric as to dramatic poetry; its sovereign quality is that of sweetness and springtide of fairy fancy crossed with light laughter and light trouble that end in perfect music.

In history as in tragedy the master's hand has not yet come to its full strength and skill; its touch is not yet wholly a.s.sured, its work not yet wholly blameless. Besides the plays undoubtedly and entirely due to the still growing genius of Shakespeare, we have taken note but of two among those which bear the partial imprint of his hand. The long-vexed question as to the authorship of the latter parts of _King Henry VI_., in their earlier or later form, has not been touched upon; nor do I design to reopen that perpetual source of debate unstanchable and inexhaustible dispute by any length of scrutiny or inquisition of detail. Two points must of course be taken for granted: that Marlowe was more or less concerned in the production, and Shakespeare in the revision of these plays; whether before or after his additions to the original _First Part of King Henry VI_. we cannot determine, though the absence of rhyme might seem to indicate a later date for the recast of the _Contention_. But it is noticeable that the style of Marlowe appears more vividly and distinctly in pa.s.sages of the reformed than of the unreformed plays.

Those famous lines, for example, which open the fourth act of the _Second Part of King Henry VI_. are not to be found in the corresponding scene of the first part of the _Contention_; yet, whether they belong to the original sketch of the play, or were inserted as an afterthought into the revised and expanded copy, the authorship of these verses is surely unmistakable:--

The gaudy, blabbing, and remorseful day Is crept into the bosom of the sea; And now loud howling wolves arouse the jades That drag the tragic melancholy night--

_Aut Christophorus Marlowe, aut diabolus_; it is inconceivable that any imitator but one should have had the power so to catch the very trick of his hand, the very note of his voice, and incredible that the one who might would have set himself to do so: for if this be not indeed the voice and this the hand of Marlowe, then what we find in these verses is not the fidelity of a follower, but the servility of a copyist. No parasitic rhymester of past or present days who feeds his starveling talent on the shreds and orts, "the fragments, sc.r.a.ps, the bits and greasy relics" of another man's board, ever uttered a more parrot-like note of plagiary. The very exact.i.tude of the repet.i.tion is a strong argument against the theory which attributes it to Shakespeare. That he had much at starting to learn of Marlowe, and that he did learn much--that in his earliest plays, and above all in his earliest historic plays, the influence of the elder poet, the echo of his style, the iteration of his manner, may perpetually be traced--I have already shown that I should be the last to question; but so exact an echo, so servile an iteration as this, I believe we shall nowhere find in them. The sonorous acc.u.mulation of emphatic epithets--as in the magnificent first verse of this pa.s.sage--is indeed at least as much a note of the young Shakespeare's style as of his master's; but even were this one verse less in the manner of the elder than the younger poet--and this we can hardly say that it is--no single verse detached from its context can weigh a feather against the full and flawless evidence of the whole speech. And of all this there is nothing in the _Contention_; the scene there opens in bald and flat nakedness of prose, striking at once into the immediate matter of stage business without the decoration of a pa.s.sing epithet or a single trope.

From this sample it might seem that the main difficulty must be to detect anywhere the sign-manual of Shakesp