SHAKESPEARE AND HIS AGE
SHAKESPEARE AND HIS AGE: HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE AND NATIVE GENIUS
Shakespeare’s aim to please his audience. Shakespeare’s ignorance of rules, if it was ignorance at all, would require to be excused in view of the circumstances of the dramatist’s life. It is necessary to keep in mind the age in which Shakespeare lived, before we evaluate his achievement as a dramatist. It is quite useful to determine how much of a man’s performance is on account in his genuine powers and how much is due to casual and accessory assistance coming from circumstances. Like individuals, nationalism have their period of infancy. In the age of Shakespeare the English nation was still struggling to emerge from barbarity. French and Italian languages were affected by the English and in most of the schools Greek was being taught to children. But this awakening was as yet confined to professional scholars or to the aristocratic circles. The general public was still largely unenlightened. At the beginning of intellectual development, people are generally attracted by what is crude, fabulous, remote from reality; so, at this time, most of the English people were excited by imaginary fairy tales of giants, dragons and other supernatural wonders. One of their favourite readings was Sir Thomas Malory’s Mort d’ Arthur. People looking for delectable wonders of fiction cannot appreciate renderings that are characterized by truth and realism. It was, therefore, unavoidable for Shakespeare who never invented his won plots for his dramas, to borrow them for the most popular of the existing novels. His spectators could not have V made out the intricacies of his plays, if they had not known -the stories of- his plays beforehand. His plots, whether – imaginary or historical, are full of incidents. The spectators’ attention was more easily drawn by thrilling incidents than by sentiment or philosophical disputes. The people had always a penchant for the marvellous. Shakespeare selected his plots so as to excite the curiosity of his readers by representing such events as they liked the most. The people in the period of Shakespeare were less interested in the poetic beauty or the narrative elegance of a play. Shakespeare derived the material for his history plays from English chronicles and ballads. His Roman plays are based on Lord North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives. His plots have plenty of incident in them because this helped him to keep the attention of his spectators who liked plenty of suspense and thrill in his plays. For the same reason we have much show and pomp in his plays.
Addison’s Cato and Shakespeare’s Othello. Voltaire has – expressed surprise that the English nation, which had witnessed a perfect tragedy like Cato could endure the barbarity in the plays of Shakespeare. Johnson has his explanation for this. He says that Addison speaks the language of poets, but Shakespeare speaks the language of men. There- are innumerable beauties in Cato which make us love its author, but there is nothing in it which acquaints us with human sentiments or actions. It affords us a splendid exhibition of artificial manner and contains just and noble sentiments expressed in a language which is easy, harmonious and elevated. However, its hopes and fears do not move us. Even when we speak of Cab, we really mean only Addison, for the drama refers only to the poet himself, not to humanity. Shakespeare is an irregular writer and irregular writing has its own beauties. it is beautiful like a natural forest whereas regular writing is like a cultivated garden. Other poets’ work are like a cabinet disclosing beautiful curiosities; the plays of Shakespeare are like mines containing inexhaustible treasures of gold and diamonds, even though, like the wealth of mines’ they are often mixed with impurities, crudities and coarseness.
Johnson’s opinion of Shakespeare’s learning. Were the talents of Shakespeare chiefly those bestowed by nature or human effort or did learning too have some part to play? There – is a traditional belief that Shakespeare was devoid of scholastic learning, lacked regular education, and knew little of Greek or Latin. On the other hand, there are also people who have discovered signs of deep learning in Shakespeare. There are passages in Shakespeare which have been cited as echoes of ancient writers. In Richard III, there is a sentence, “Go – before, I’ll follow” which is seen as a translation of a phrase in Terence; Caliban’s remark “I cried to sleep again” in The Tempest is considered as an echo of one of Anacreon’s remarks. But to claim that Shakespeare had much classical learning on this basis is by no means valid, because these examples could well have come from those classical books which had been translated into English in Shakespeare’s time. In fact the resemblances and similarities are so few that the only conclusion we can reach is that Shakespeare does not seem to have know any classical work which had not by then been translate into England.
The part played by Shakespeare’s genuine power in his dramatic achievement. It is uncertain whether Shakespeare knew the modern languages such as French and Italian, though there are French words in his plays, this by itself does not prove anything conclusive. It is also possible that the French scenes in his plays are written by some other hand. It is probable that Shakespeare knew enough Latin to be acquainted with its constructions but that he was not able to read Roman writers with ease in almost indisputable. It is beyond dispute that a good deal of knowledge covering wide areas of life is scattered over the pages of the plays of Shakespeare. He could have acquired this knowledge from books, or from life itself at first hand; the latter indeed seems to be a stronger possibility. In addition to this, Shakespeare seems to have been a voracious reader of original and translated works in English. However, the greater part of his dramatic excellence is attributable to his own genius. When he started his career the English stage was in a crude state. There were no examples of critical works on drama from which he could learn much. Neither character nor dialogue were understood at the time, but it is to Shakespeare’s credit that both character and dialogue, as we understand them, were introduced on the English stage and exploited to good effect in some of his scenes.
The course of Shakespeare’s dramatic development is hard to trace because the chronological order in which he produced his plays is not yet convincingly established. Rowe’s opinion that Shakespeare’s vigorous works were done by him in his youth because he worked on native genius alone is not quite acceptable. Natural genius cannot be an adequate substitute for actual experience of life and the world. However gifted by nature a man may be, he can always incorporate in his works what he has learned from life. Shakespeare too must have widened his knowledge and outlook gradually. Like everybody else, he must have grown wiser as he grew older. Therefore he could not have written his best plays when he was still young and comparatively inexperienced in the ways of life. He must surely have looked upon the world and mankind with greater curiosity, clarity and attentiveness with the passing of years; indeed, his plays reveal this. Shakespeare’s ingenuity is all the more striking in his portrayal of characters, considering that no writer in English except Chaucer before him had portrayed human character in such a realistic manner. Shakespeare having few literary models before him, had to create both matter and form.
Shakespeare’s deep knowledge of humanity despite his handicaps. The Science of psychology had not yet, in Shakespeare’s time, started its probes into the working of the human mind. Therefore, no writer could possibly have acquired any knowledge or information about human nature from books. Only a keen first-hand observation of life in its numerous manifestations could help any one form comprehensive ideas about human nature and human character. Shakespeare had none of the natural advantages of birth that Robert Boyle had for satisfying his eagerness to know about human behaviour. Shakespeare moved to London as a needy adventurer and earned living for a short period while by struggling hard at low employment. The poor circumstances of his life, however, did not adversely ‘affect his intellect and genius. Despite these drawbacks, he was able, to glean an exact knowledge of the ways and modes of life and, the many kinds of temperament. This knowledge enabled him to, portray the variety and diversity of characters and to reveal the subtlest of distinctions between man and man. What is more, he had none to emulate in this regard though he himself was imitated by all succeeding writers. More principles of theoretical knowledge and more rules of practical prudence are to be found in his drama than, in the works of all his successors.
Shakespeare’s originality : his valuable contribution to English drama. Shakespeare’s knowledge of the inanimate world was as wide as his knowledge of the animate world of human beings. Whatever his subject—life or nature—he presents it as if he had seen it with his own eyes; the images he describes are such as his own perceptions received directly. Nothing in his work is second-hand; nothing is derived or copied out from others because no writer of such ability existed before him. Apart from Homer, indeed, there is no other writer like Shakespeare, who has so much invention to his glory or who brought so much novelty to his age or nation. He was the architect of English Drama, its form, characters, language and other dramatic aspects. Dennis gives Shakespeare the credit of. being the originator of English tragical harmony, that is, the harmony, of blank verse, diversified by disyllable and trisyllable terminations. This statement, however, is not strictly true to the fact as Johnson says because the disyllabic termination is to be found in Kid’s Spanish Tragedy which does not owe anything to Shakespeare. But to Shakespeare goes the credit of being the first, with the exception Of Spenser, to discover the degree of smoothness and harmony which the English language was capable of attaining. He has blended in his plays the delicacy of Rowe, without Rowe’s effeminacy. His dialogues are vigorous and pointed but it is when he tries o soothe by softness that he cries out his purpose better.
Praise sometimes undeserved. However all the praise we confer upon Shakespeare is not wholly due to his own accomplishment; there is much that has been unduly bestowed upon him by custom and veneration which look on his merits and shut its eyes to his defects. John Upton in his Critical Observations on Shakespeare has unfortunately lavished praise on certain features of Shakespeare’s plays which merely reveals that Shakespeare has corrupted language by every mode of deprivation. In Shakespearean drama there are excellent scenes, but there is not a single play, which if it were performed now as the work of a present writer in Johnson’s age) would be heard till the end. This is because Shakespeare wrote his plays mainly to please. the spectators of his own age and he ceased writing the moment he knew that his audience was satisfied. In other words, he did not endeavour to rise much higher than the standards of his own age.
Shakespeare’s indifference to fame. In writing his dramas, it seems Shakespeare had no aim of achieving fame or future renown. Undoubtedly, his object was immediate popularity and profit. His expectations were fulfilled when he found his plays enacted on the stage. He looked for nothing further. That is why we find him repeating the same jests and jokes in several plays or entwining different plots by the same kind of complication; this repetition could, however, be excused on the ground that he was not the only one to adopt the procedure. This very indifference towards fame led him not to bother about making a collection of his plays or keeping them safe from harmful additions and alternations with which other corrupted them. Most of his plays were not published until about seven years after his death. As for the few which appeared in his life time, they went without the benefit of his scrutiny .