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METHOD OF INQUIRY.
were not obedient to some spirit, regulating and determining each portion of the whole.
We are bound to discover links of connection between man and man, ruling principles by which all were governed, common qualities of national character conspicuous throughout the series, before we have the right to style the result of our studies anything better than a bundle of literary essays. It is even incumbent upon us to do more than this. In spite of narrow chronological limitations, it is our duty to show that the subject we have undertaken has a beginning, a middle, and an ending in the category of time, and that the completion of the process was inherent in its earliest, embryonic stages.
In the history of the English Drama during the reigns of Elizabeth and James, the conditions which render a well-ordered inquiry possible were sufficiently realised.
Whatever method the critic may decide on, this at least he must both recognise and bear in view. He has to deal with a growth of poetry,
, shooting complete in stem and foliage and blossom, with extraordinary force and exuberant fertility, in a space of time almost unparalleled for brevity. The unity of his subject, the organic interdependence of its several parts, is what he has to keep before his niind.
Three stages may be marked in the short but vigorous evolution of our dramatic literature. The first and longest is the stage of preparation and of tentative endeavour. In the second maturity is reached ; the type is fixed by one great master, perfected and presented to the world in unapproachable magnificence by one immeasurably greater. The third is a stage of decadence and dissipation ; the type, brought previously to perfection, suffers from attempts to vary or refine
In the first stage we trace the efforts of our national genius to form for itself, instinctively, almost unconsciously, its own peculiar language of expression. Various influences are brought to bear upon the people at this epoch—through the religious conflicts of the Reformation, through the revival of classical learning, in the definition of English nationality against the powers of Spain and Rome, in the contact with Italian culture. England had not fashioned her own forms of art before the literatures of other and widely different races were held up for emulative admiration to our students. There was a danger lest invention should be crushed by imitation at the outset. Pedantic rules, borrowed from Aristotelian commentators and the apes of Seneca, were imposed by learned critics on the playwright. And no sooner had this peril been avoided, than another threatened. It seemed for a moment as though our theatre might be prostituted to purposes of political satire, diverted from its proper function of artistic presentation, and finally suppressed as a seditious engine. Meanwhile, a powerful body in the State, headed by the Puritans, but recruited from all classes of order-loving citizens, regarded the theatre with suspicion and dislike.
The native genius of the English people, though
THREE STAGES IN THE DRAMA.
menaced by these divers dangers, was so vigorous, the race itself was so isolated and so full of a robust tempestuous vitality, the language was so copious and vivid in its spoken strength, the poetic impulse was so powerful, that all efforts to domesticate alien styles, all inducements to degrade or scurrilise the theatre, all factious opposition to the will and pleasure of the people, ended in the assimilation of congenial and the rejection of repugnant elements. The style of England, the expression of our race in a specific form of art, grew steadily, instinctively, spontaneously, by evolution from within.
From this first period, which embraces the Miracles, Moralities, and Interludes, the earliest comedies of common manners, the classical experiments of Sackville and Norton, Hughes, Gascoigne, Edwards, and their satellites, the euphuistic phantasies of Lyly, the melodramas of Kyd, Greene, and Peele, together with the first rude history-plays and realistic tragedies of daily life, emerges Marlowe. Marlowe is the dramatist under whose hand the type, as it is destined to endure and triumph, takes form, becomes a thing of power and beauty. Marlowe closes the first, inaugurates the second period.
Over the second period Shakspere reigns paramount; perhaps we ought to say, he reigns alone ; although a Titan so robust as Jonson stands at his right hand, with claims to sovereignty, and large scope in the future for the proclamation of his title. We, however, who regard the evolution of the Drama from the vantage-ground of time, see that in Shakspere the art of sixteenth-century England was completed and accomplished. It had imbibed all elements it needed
for its growth ; comic humour, lyrical loveliness, the tragic earnestness and intense reality of English imagination, classical story and Italian romance, the phantasmagoric brilliancy of shows at Court, the gust of fresh life breathed into the spirit of a haughty and heroic nation by the conflicts and the triumphs of a recent past. The point about Shakspere's art is that it is Art, mature, self-conscious, working upon given methods to a single aim. Those methods, the external forms, of Shakspere's drama had been determined for him by his predecessors. That aim, the one aim of true dramatic art, the aim which he alone triumphantly achieved, was the presentation of human character in action. To this artistic end all elements, however various, however wonderfully blent, however used and scattered with the profuse prodigality of an unrivalled genius, are impartially subordinated. In order to illustrate the single-hearted sincerity of Shakspere as an artist, it is only needful to observe the exclusion of religious comment, of marked political intention, of deliberate moralising, from works so full of opportunities for their display, and in an age when the very foundations of opinion had been stirred, when Europe was convulsed with wars and schisms, when speculative philosophy was essaying fresh Icarian flights over the whole range of human experience. True to his vocation, Shakspere never permitted these ferments of the time to distract him from the poet's task, although he found in them a source of intellectual stimulus and moral insight, an atmosphere of mental energy, which makes his plays the school of human nature for all time.
Shakspere realised the previous efforts of the
THREE STAGES IN THE DRAMA.
English genius to form a Drama, and perfected the type in his imperishable masterpieces. With him, in the second period, but after a wide interval, we have to rank Ben Jonson, who adapted the classical bias of the earlier stage to England's now developed art, and Fletcher, through whom the romantic motives borrowed from Italian and Spanish sources found new and luminous expression. In the third period we meet a host of valiant playwrights, led by Webster, Ford, Massinger, Shirley: none of them mean men. Yet these are influenced and circumscribed by their commanding predecessors; limited in their resources by the exhaustion of more salient subjects; incapable of reforming the type upon a different conception of dramatic art ; forced to affect novelty and to stimulate the jaded sensibilities of a sated audience by means of ingenious extravagances, by the invention of strained incidents, by curious combinations, far-sought fables, monstrosities, and tangled plots. After them the type dies down into inanities and laboured incoherent imitations.
This evolution of our Drama through three broadly marked stages follows the law of growth which may be traced in all continuous products of the human spirit. A close parallel is afforded by the familiar periods of medieval architecture; which in all countries of Europe emerged from Romanesque into Pointed Gothic, the latter style passing through stages of early purity, decorative richness, and efflorescent decadence. Greek dramatic art, obeying the same rule of triple progres