1902 Encyclopedia > William Shakespeare > Growth of Native English Drama

William Shakespeare
(Part 35)


Growth of Native English Drama

Of these effects the rapid growth and development of the national drama was the most brilliant and characteristic. There was indeed at the time a unique stimulus in this direction. The greater number of the eager excited listeners who crowded the rude theatres from floor to roof had shared in the adventurous exploits of the age, while all felt the keenest interest in life and action. And the stage represented with admirable breadth and fidelity the struggling forces, the mingled elements, humorous and tragic, the passionate hopes, deep-rooted animosities, and fitful misgivings of those eventful years.

The spirit of the time had made personal daring a common heritage: with noble and commoner, gentle and simple, alike, love of queen and country was a romantic passion, and heroic self-devotion at the call of either a beaten way of ordinary life. To act with energy and decision in the face of danger, to strike at once against any odds in the cause of freedom and independence, was the desire and ambition of all.

This complete unity of national sentiment and action became the great characteristic of the time. The dangers threatening the newly liberated kingdom were too real and pressing to admit of anything like seriously divided councils, or bitterly hostile parties within the realm. Everything thus conspired to give an extraordinary degree of concentration and brilliancy to the national life.

For the twenty years that followed the destruction of the Armada London was the centre and focus of that life. Here gathered the soldiers and officers who had fought against Spain in the Low Countries, against France in Scotland, and against Rome in Ireland. Along the river side, and in noble houses about the Strand, were the hardy mariners and adventurous sea captains, such as Drake, Hawkins, and Frobisher, who had driven their dauntless keels into unknown seas, who had visited strange lands and alien races in order to enlarge the knowledge, increase the dominions, and augment the wealth of their fellow countrymen.

Here assembled the noble councillors, scholars, and cavaliers whose foresight and skill guided the helm of state, whose accomplishment in letters and arms gave refinement and distinction to court pageants and ceremonials, and whose patronage and support of the rising drama helped to make the metropolitan theatre the great centre of genius and art, the great school of historical teaching, the great mirror of human nature in all the breadth and emphasis of its interests, convictions, and activities.

The theatre was indeed the living organ through which all the marvellous and mingled experiences of a time incomparably rich in vital elements found expression. There was no other, no organized or adequate means, of popular expression at all. Books were a solitary entertainment in the hands of few; newspapers did not exist; and the modern relief of incessant public meetings fortunately perhaps, an unknown luxury.

And yet, amidst the plenitude of national life centred in London, the need for some common organ of expression was never more urgent or imperious. New and almost inexhaustible springs from the well-heads of intellectual life had for years been gradually fertilizing the productive English mind. The heroic life of the past, in clear outline and stately movement, had been revealed in the recovered masterpieces of Greece and Rome. The stores of more recent wisdom and knowledge, discovery and invention, science and art, were poured continually into the literary exchequer of the nation, and widely diffused amongst eager and open-minded recipients. Under this combined stimulus the national intellect and imagination had already reacted fruitfully in ways that were full of higher promise.

The material results of these newly awakened energies were, as we have seen, not less signal or momentous: The number, variety, and power of the new forces thus acting on society affected in a short period a complete moral revolution. The barriers against the spread of knowledge and the spirit of free inquiry erected and long maintained by mediaeval ignorance and prejudice were now thrown down. The bonds of feudal authority and Romish domination that had hitherto forcibly repressed the expanding national life were effectually broken.

Men opened their eyes upon a new world which it was an absorbing interest and endless delight to explore, -- a new world physically, where the old geographic limits had melted into the blue haze of distant horizons -- a new world morally, where the abolition of alien dogma and priestly rule gave free play to fresh and vigorous social energies; and, above all, more surprising and mysterious than all, they opened their eyes with a strange sense of wonder and exultation on the new world of emancipated human spirit.

At no previous period the popular curiosity about human life and human affairs been so vivid and intense. In an age of deeds so memorable, man naturally became the centre of interest, and the whole world of human action and passion, character and conduct, was invested with irresistible action. All ranks and classes had the keenest desire to penetrate the mysterious depths, explore the unknown regions, and realize as fully as might be the actual achievements and ideal possibilities of the nature throbbing with so full a pulse within themselves and reflected so powerfully in the world around them.

Human nature, released from the oppression and darkness of the ages, and emerging with all its infinite faculties and latent powers into the radiant light of a secular day, was the new world that excited an admiration more profound and hopes far more ardent than any recently discovered lands beyond the sinking sun.

At the critical moment Shakespeare, appeared as the Columbus of that new world. Pioneers had indeed gone before and in a measure prepared the way, but Shakespeare still remains the great discoverer, occupying a position of almost lonely grandeur in the isolation and completeness of his work.

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