SHAKSPEARE; OR, THE POET
[Transcriber's Note: Shakspeare is spelled as "Shakspeare" as well as "Shakespeare" in this essay. The original spellings have been retained.]
1. Great men are more distinguished by range and extent, than by originality. If we require the originality which consists in weaving, like a spider, their web from their own bowels; in finding clay, and making bricks, and building the house; no great men are original. Nor does valuable originality consist in unlikeness to other men. The hero is in the press of knights, and the thick of events; and, seeing what men want, and sharing their desire, he adds the needful length of sight and of arm, to come to the desired point. The greatest genius is the most indebted man. A poet is no rattlebrain, saying what comes uppermost and, because he says everything, saying, at last, something good; but a heart in unison with his time and country. There is nothing whimsical and fantastic in his production, but sweet and sad earnest, freighted with the weightiest convictions, and pointed with the most determined aim which any man or class knows of in his times.
2. The Genius of our life is jealous of individuals and will not have any individual great, except through the general. There is no choice to genius. A great man does not wake up on some fine morning, and say, “I am full of life, I will go to sea, and find an Antarctic continent: to-day I will square the circle: I will ransack botany, and find a new food for man: I have a new architecture in my mind: I foresee a new mechanic power:” no, but he finds himself in the river of the thoughts and events, forced onward by the ideas and necessities of his contemporaries. He stands where all the eyes of men look one way, and their hands all point in the direction in which he should go. The church has reared him amidst rites and pomps, and he carries out the advice which her music gave him, and builds a cathedral needed by her chants and processions. He finds a war raging: it educates him, by trumpet, in barracks, and he betters the instruction. He finds two counties groping to bring coal, or flour, or fish, from the place of production to the place of consumption, and he hits on a railroad. Every master has found his materials collected, and his power lay in his sympathy with his people, and in his love of the materials he wrought in. What an economy of power! and what a compensation for the shortness of life! All is done to his hand. The world has brought him thus far on his way. The human race has gone out before him, sunk the hills, filled the hollows, and bridged the rivers. Men, nations, poets, artisans, women, all have worked for him, and he enters into their labors. Choose any other thing, out of the line of tendency, out of the national feeling and history, and he would have all to do for himself: his powers would be expended in the first preparations. Great genial power, one would almost say, consists in not being original at all; in being altogether receptive; in letting the world do all, and suffering the spirit of the hour to pass unobstructed through the mind.
3. Shakspeare’s youth fell in a time when the English people were importunate for dramatic entertainments. The court took offense easily at political allusions, and attempted to suppress them. The Puritans, a growing and energetic party and the religious among the Anglican Church, would suppress them. But the people wanted them. Inn-yards, houses without roofs, and extemporaneous inclosures at country fairs, were the ready theaters of strolling players. The people had tasted this new joy; and, as we could not hope to suppress newspapers now,–no, not by the strongest party,–neither then could king, prelate, or puritan,–alone or united, suppress an organ, which was ballad, epic, newspaper, caucus, lecture, Punch, and library, at the same time. Probably king, prelate, and puritan, all found their own account in it. It had become, by all causes, a national interest,–by no means conspicuous, so that some great scholar would have thought of treating it in an English history,–but not a whit less considerable, because it was cheap, and of no account, like a baker’s shop. The best proof of its vitality is the crowd of writers which suddenly broke into this field; Kyd, Marlow, Greene, Jonson, Chapman, Dekker, Webster, Heywood, Middleton, Peele, Ford, Massinger, Beaumont, and Fletcher.