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SHAKESPEARE'S WOMEN

CHAPTER I

SHAKESPEARE'S TIMES

IT
T is an axiom derived from the experience of all who

reflect on such subjects, and too firmly established to need further demonstration, that the achievements of such great and remarkable men as have marked an epoch in the spiritual, scientific, or political life of their own people and of humanity, are composed of two factorsnamely, that which they have created by their own intellect, by their idiosyncrasy and gifts, by the nature of their character, and the innate tendency of their individual moral and spiritual development; and that which they have derived from those influences which the struggles of a long past have exercised over all the domains of a spiritual and moral life, over the intellect and circumstances among which they lived, and of which they of necessity felt the effects. For even the mightiest, most independent spirits, cven those who have caused the most wonderful revolutions in the realms of human activity, who have contributed in the highest degree to the development of the human race, stand upon the shoulders of the past, and build upon the foundations which have been laid down, both by those great spirits who have preceded them, and by the united activity of mankind. On the other hand, they are dependent upon the times in which they live, and cannot escape those influences which the state of morals and surroundings exert upon the:n, and which, to use the expression invented by the leader of the French realistic novelists, Emile Zola, compose the milieu which to a certain extent controls and limits their activity. Indeed, it is a fact often observed, that those great men who were most deeply rooted in their epoch, who were at once the highest and the most complete expression of the aims and ideas that moved those tiines, have exerted the most powerful influence upon the progress and development of their contemporaries and of humanity in general; while others, even though they had intellects as commanding, and were as strong and energetic in character, who believed that they could emancipate themselves from their age, who, to use the common expression, were ahead of their time, or sought to be so, have striven in vain, and have been deceived in their hopes of advancing humanity rapidly—nay, have sometimes failed hopelessly.

Even Shakespeare himself was subject to this fundamental principle. His powerful and all-embracing spirit could not free itself either from the influence of his predecessors in the domain which he swayed so mightily, or from the domination of his age, of the spirit that moved it, and the circumstances that created it. There was even a time when literary criticism went so far in its conviction regarding Shakespeare's dependence upon his era and his immediate forerunners, as to describe the poct as a brilliantly endowed self-taught realist, who sometimes succeeded, by virtue of his genius, in overcoming the roughness of the models he had chosen from the works of his predecessors, as well as the license and coarseness of the period itself, but who was in the long-run overcome by them. This opinion is now out of date, and one can hardly imagine, recalling Shakespeare's profoundest and finest tragedies, how it could ever have obtained a hearing. Amongst the prominent thinkers who endorsed this unjust and sweeping verdict

was Voltaire, whom I have already mentioned as having spoken of Hamlet as “the work of a drunken savage. Frederick II. of Prussia, too, expressed a similar opinion on Shakespeare, and of all dramas designed and carried out in his manner. In these men, to whom the possession of great intelectual capacity cannot be denied, the source of their incongruous judgments was simply a foregone conclusion, founded upon the fixed thcory of the unities of time and place.

This theory, as Lessing has triumphantly proved, was based simply on a mistaken interpretation of one of Aristotle's art rules, which governed with unquestioned sovereignty the French self-styled classical drama. Whatever departed from this rule appeared to thcsc mon as rough and wanting in taste. It was indeed quite natural that to those who approached dramatic work with such vicws, Shakespeare's plays must have appeared monstrous and shocking. For his stage was the wide world. His action often embraced whole lives, and moved from one country to another. In some plays there even appear personages who in the first act are not yet born, and who in the third assume important parts. For unprejudiced judges, however, even if they know nothing of the grand development which England reached under her great, though, from the point of view of posterity, scarcely amiał le Queen Elizabeth, Shakespeare's dramatic works must lead to a favourable conclusion as to the nature and character of a time which gave birth to such masterpieces of poetry. Such a conclusion would be quite correct, for the age of Elizabeth marks one of the most prominent altitudes in the intellectual, political, and national development of England. Certainly, if we adopt the measures now in use for gauging the satisfactory condition of a state, of its happiness, or of the enviable condition of the people, the realm of England under its Virgin Queen will not precisely resemble the ideal of perfection, even in a remote degree. Of liberty in the modern sense, of the equal division of power in the constitutional sense, as now understood, between the legislative and executive branches of government, of freedom of the press, and other guarantees, to which we are accustomed to look as the bulwarks and safeguards of our civil, political, and personal freedom, there was not a trace in the England of Elizabeth. This regent, who, in most of her political acts, showed herself a wise and high-minded ruler, who was far from imitating the violent and often bloodthirsty tyranny exercised by her father, Henry VIII., was nevertheless extraordinarily proud and imperious, clinging with an iron grasp to even the smallest item of that autocratic regal power which she believed to have been given to her by the grace of God, on which account she held herself to be under the special protection of Heaven. Parliament had often to listen to harsh words from her, if it concerned itself about things which in her opinion were out of its jurisdiction, and yet these were things which, from a constitutional point of view, were quite within the domain of a legislative assembly. She claimed, besides, with great energy, the right to veto, by virtue of her sovereign prerogative, acts and ordinances which had been passed by Parliament.

Elizabeth very especially hindered or forbade every interference of Parliament with the affairs of the Church, over which she claimed for herself absolute jurisdiction, true to her father's example. The power to assert and enforce such claims had been obtained by the English monarchs owing to the attitude taken by England in that severance from the Roman See which led only by secondary paths and in consequence of circumstances to what is called the Reformation. This great change occurred in England not through a common and irresistible movement on the part of the people, but through the autocratic word of a despotic king, who found his dependence on Rome a hindrance to the satisfaction of a sensual passion for a woman, and hence determined to sever it. In the mode of procedure adopted by Henry

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