"Thou who didst the stars and sunbeams know,
Self-schooled, self-scanned, self-honoured, self-secure,
Didst tread on earth unguessed at."
F all the great men who added to the glory of Elizabeth's England, William Shakspere was the greatest, though
neither the queen nor her people realised how great. Of the man himself the world knows nothing; with his work
the Old and New Worlds ring even
Now we know that he was one of the great "world-voices," "far-seeing as the sun," "the upper light of the world,"—one of the greatest men that the world has ever seen.
He had little enough book-learning, "small Latin and less Greek"; but he knew mankind, he understood human nature, as rare a gift then as it is now. And by this great gift he could make the people of Elizabeth's days laugh and cry at will. Men cared about human life: he showed them human life, showed them men and women as they really are, with all their smiles and all their sorrows, all their actions and all their thoughts. From
"The whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school."
The lonely exile crying to his king—
"Your will be done: this must my comfort be,
The sun that warms you here shall shine on me."
He tells his hearers of warriors and generals, of kings and statesmen,
"Of old, unhappy, far-off things,
And battles long ago."
There is a whole play about Julius Cæsar and another about Coriolanus. Like Spenser, too, this poet can take us into the fairy world. His fairy queen is called Titania, and the kingdom of the fairies is away in the Indies, where the fairy Puck and his comrades circle the earth. These fairies have all the secrets of nature: they dance in the moonbeams, and they sleep in the flowers, fanned by the wings of painted butterflies. Shakspere's fun breaks out in the endless blunderings of the "Comedy of Errors" as well as in the "Merry Wives of Windsor," which he wrote for Queen Elizabeth herself. Though only a country-born lad, he caught up the spirit of the times, and wrote such tragedy and comedy as had not been written since the days of olden Greece.
Let us take one of his stories and tell it shortly.
There was a rich Jew called Shylock living at Venice. There was also a man named Antonio, "one in whom the ancient Roman honour more appeared than any that drew breath in Italy." There was also a man called Bassanio, a friend of Antonio's, who wanted to marry a wealthy lady at Venice called Portia. Would Antonio lend him some money so that he could marry? Now, Antonio was expecting some ships back from the East laden with merchandise. So the two friends went to Shylock, the rich Jew, and asked him to advance some money which should be repaid on the arrival of the ships. Shylock offered a large sum of money, making only one condition, half in jest, half in earnest, that if the money were not paid on the appointed day, Shylock should exact a pound of Antonio's flesh, to be cut where it pleased him. Antonio signed the bond, thinking it was only "merry sport," and took the money. So Bassanio married Portia. But that very same day they heard the sad news that Antonio's ships had been lost at sea, and that he could never now repay Shylock. He had therefore been cast into prison.
At once Bassanio and Portia set out in all haste for Venice, to save, if possible, the friend who was suffering for them. Portia knew how Bassanio loved his friend, how he would sacrifice "his life itself, his wife, and all the world" for him, and she now made a plan. She wrote to her cousin, who was going to judge Antonio at the trial, and begged to be allowed to plead instead. She dressed up in his robes of law and entered the court. Looking round, she saw the merciless Shylock, she saw Bassanio standing by Antonio in an agony of distress. Nobody recognised her, and the trial began. Her famous plea for mercy is one of Shakspere's finest passages, that mercy which "droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath." But Shylock would have no mercy.
Antonio's bosom was bared for the knife, and the scales were ready to weigh the pound of flesh, when Portia cried,—
"Tarry a little; there is something else.
This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood;
The words expressly are, a pound of flesh."
Now Shylock could not possibly take a pound of flesh without shedding blood, so by her clever action Portia saved the life of Antonio, her husband's friend. Shylock escaped, Antonio's ships came in after all, and the play ends happily with the joy of Portia and Bassanio.
Shakspere went on writing long after the death of Elizabeth. His plays grew very serious and thoughtful as life went on. In 1610 he returned from the noisy London theatres to the peace of Stratford-on-Avon, where a few years later he passed to
"The undiscover'd country from whose bourne
No traveller returns."