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William Shakespeare
(Part 42)


Shakespeare's Dramatic Career: Third Period

In the third period of Shakespeare's dramatic career years had evidently brought enlarged vision, wider thoughts, and deeper experiences. While the old mastery of art remains, the works belonging to this period seem to bear traces of more intense moral struggles, larger and less joyous views of human life, more troubled, complex, and profound conceptions and emotions. Comparatively few marks of the lightness and animation of the earlier works remain, but at the same time the dramas of this period display an unrivalled power of piercing the deepest mysteries and sounding the most tremendous and perplexing problems of human life and human destiny.

To this period belong the four great tragedies -- Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, Lear; the three Roman plays -- Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, Anthony and Cleopatra; the two singular plays whose scene and personages are Greek but whose action and meaning are wider and deeper than either Greek or Roman life -- Troilus and Cressida and Timon of Athens; and one comedy -- Measure for Measure, which is almost tragic in the depth and intensity of its characters and incidents.

The four great tragedies represent the highest reach of Shakespeare's dramatic power, and they sufficiently illustrate the range and complexity of the deeper problems that now occupied his mind. Timon and Measure for Measure, however, exemplify the same tendency to brood with meditative intensity over the wrongs and miseries that afflict humanity. These works sufficiently prove that during this period Shakespeare gained a disturbing insight into the deeper evils of the world, arising from the darker passions, such as treachery and revenge.

But it is also clear that, with the larger vision of a noble, well-poised nature, he at the same time gained a fuller perception of the deeper springs of goodness in human nature, of the great virtues of invincible fidelity and unwearied love, and he evidently received not only consolation and calm but new stimulus and power from the fuller realization of these virtues.

The typical plays of this period thus embody Shakespeare's ripest experience of the great issues of life.

In the four grand tragedies the central problem is a profoundly moral one. It is the supreme internal conflict of good and evil amongst the central forces and higher elements of human nature, as appealed to and developed by sudden and powerful temptation, smitten by accumulated wrongs, or plunged in overwhelming calamities. As the result, we learn that there is something infinitely more precious in life than social ease or worldly success -- nobleness of soul, fidelity to truth and honour, human love and loyalty, strength and tenderness, and trust to the very end.

In the most tragic experiences this fidelity to all that is best in life is only possible through the loss of life itself. But when Desdemona expires with a sigh and Cordelia's loving eyes are closed, when Hamlet no more draws his breath in pain and the tempest-tossed Lear is at last liberated from the rack of this tough world, we feel that, death having set his sacred seal on their great sorrows and greater love, they remain with us as possessions for ever.

In the three dramas belonging to Shakespeare's last period, or rather which may be said to close his dramatic career, the same feeling of severe but consolatory calm is still more apparent. If the deeper discords of life are not finally resolved, the virtues which soothe their perplexities and give us courage and endurance to wait, as well as confidence to trust the final issues, -- the virtues of forgiveness and generosity, of forbearance and self-control, -- are largely illustrated. This is a characteristic feature in each of these closing dramas, in the Winter's Tale, Cymbeline, and the Tempest.

The Tempest is supposed, on tolerably good grounds, to be Shakespeare's last work, and in it we see the great magician, having gained by the wonderful experience of life, and the no less wonderful practice of his art, serene wisdom, clear and enlarged vision, and beneficent self-control, break his magical wand and retire from the scene of his triumphs to the home he had chosen amidst the woods and meadows of the Avon, and surrounded by the family and friends he loved.

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