1902 Encyclopedia > William Shakespeare > Superiority of the English Stage in the Time of Shakespeare

William Shakespeare
(Part 39)


Superiority of the English Stage

This is in fact the key-note of the English stage in the great period of its development. It was its national interest and intensity of tragic power that made the English drama so immeasurably superior to contemporary drama in Europe.

The Italian drama languished because, though carefully elaborated in point of form, it had no fulness of national life, no common ethical conviction or aspiration, to vitalize it. Even tragedy, in the hands of Italian had no depth of human passion, no energy of heroic purpose, to give higher meaning and power to its evolution.

In Spain the dominant courtly and ecclesiastical influences limited the development of the national drama, while in France it remained from the outset under restrictions of classical and pseudo-classical traditions.

Shakespeare's predecessors and contemporaries, in elevating the common stages, and filling them with poetry, music, and passion, had attracted to the theatre all classes including the more cultivated and refined; and the intelligent interest, energetic patriotism, and robust life representative an English audience supplied the strongest to the more perfect development of the great organ of national expression.

The forms of dramatic art, in the three main departments of comedy, tragedy, drama, had been, as we have seen, clearly discriminated and evolved in their earlier stages. It was a moment of supreme promise and expectation, and in the accidents of earth, or, as we may more appropriately and gratefully say, in the ordinances of heaven, the supreme poet and dramatist appeared to more than fulfil the utmost promise of the time.

By right of imperial command over all the resources of imaginative insight and expression Shakespeare combined the rich dramatic materials already prepared into more perfect forms, and carried them to the highest point of ideal development. He quickly surpassed Marlowe in passion, music, and intellectual power; Greene in lyrical beauty, elegiac grace, and narrative interest; Peele in picturesque touch and pastoral sweetness; and Lyly in bright and sparkling dialogue.

And having distanced the utmost efforts of his predecessors and contemporaries he took his own higher way, and reigned to the end without a rival in the new world of supreme dramatic art he had created.

It is a new world, because Shakespeare's work alone can be said to possess the organic strength and infinite variety, the throbbing fulness, vital complexity, and breathing truth, of nature herself. In points of artistic resource and technical ability -- such as copious and expressive diction, freshness and pregnancy of verbal combination, richly modulated verse, and structural skill in the handling of incident and action -- Shakespeare's supremacy is indeed sufficiently assured. But, after all, it is of course in the spirit and substance of his work, his power of piercing to the hidden centres of character, of touching the deepest springs of impulse and passion, out of which are the issues of life, and of evolving those issues dramatically with a flawless strength, subtlety, and truth, which raises him so immensely above and beyond not only the best of the playwrights who went before him, but the whole line of illustrious dramatists that came after him.

It is Shakespeare's unique distinction that he has an absolute command over all the complexities of thought and feeling that prompt to action and bring out the dividing lines of character. He sweeps with the hand of a master the whole gamut of human experience, from the lowest note to the very top of its compass, from the sportive childish treble of Mamilius and the pleading boyish tones of Prince Arthur, up to the spectre-haunted terrors of Macbeth, the tropical passion of Othello, the agonized sense and tortured spirit of Hamlet, the sustained elemental grandeur, the Titanic force and utterly tragical pathos, of Lear.

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