John Drinkwater thinks that Shakespeare’s “essential greatness lies not in his plots or his humanity or his sense of character, but in his poetry.” Shakespeare indeed is not only the greatest poet but the greatest dramatic poet of England. He started his career as a dramatist, as an apprentice learning the trick of the trade from the University Wits, like Marlowe, Greene, Lodge, Nashe. But within him was a power which could assimilate all the store of knowledge the age possessed. And with his imaginative sympathy and deep power of insight into the human soul and saw the ultimate reality of life. expressed in all his dramas and with his maturity of acquired for himself “negative capability” by which into the mystery of human soul.
At first Shakespeare toyed with the Euphuistic style popularised by Lyly and handled a medium to express his poetic thought, which he inherited from Marlowe, who wrote his mighty lines in blending. He wrote his early comedies and historical plays under the direct influence of Lyly, Marlowe and other University Wits, who wrote for the stage. Till with sure foot, he stood on the Olympic heights by the sheer force of his genius. And one after the other he wrote his high comedies in which poetry, humor and music were all.
blended together in the romantic glow of the master’s genius. His spirit of comedy had nothing in common with the spirit of classical comedies of Aristophanes. There was no moral purpose to hold up to ridicule the vices of contemporary society or to chastise the folly of his time which by the way inspired the comic mose of Shakespeare’s great contemporary, Ben Jonson. He had written his comedies in a happy mood for joy and laughter and saturated them with his love of romance and beauty in nature. He created a magic atmosphere in the high comedies with his creative genius delighting in poetry and music.
As an example let us take A Mid-summer Night’s Dream. Shakespeare creates a fantasy, a dream, a vision of love in the forest of Athens where in a magic atmosphere of moonlight and beauties of nature, all the young lovers of the play gather together. The watery moon shines over them through the green boughs and multi-coloured flowers wet with nightly dews are around the mortal lovers. And to the magic charm of the forest soaked in moonlight is added the colourful existence of insubtantial faeries who follow the shades of the night round the earth with their King and Queen. This element of supernaturalism with its delicate poetry and charm is the creation of the happiest mood and rich fancy of Shakespeare in a lyric rapture. The whole play becomes a masque one complete lyric poem with colorful fancy and imagination enriching its dominant motive of love in its different manifestations in human heart. Nature, again, partakes of the life of fairy existence and all the poetic fancy lavished on it, help to create that dream world in which the fairies enter and become the reality of the dream! Even the grossness of Bottom has impinged into this dream within a dream! And Faery love and jealousy get mixed up with the mortal love in a dream, in a midsummer madness that possesses the soul of all mortals inside the magic circle of the Athenian forest. Thus Shakespeare by the magic of his poetic fancy has been successful in achieving that willing suspension of disbelief which constitutes peotic faith. Even the tragic story of Pyramus and Thisbe ridiculously staged by Bottom and his company from a part of the theme of love, a tragedy turned into comedy to find its proper place in such a world as has been created by the magic art and creative genius of Shakespeare. Finally we wake up from the dream and with Demetrius feel.
“These things seem small and undistinguishable
Like far-off mountains turned into clouds.”
“She never told her love
But let concealment, like a worm in the bud
Feed on her damask cheek: she pined in thought
And with a green and yellow melancholy
She sat like patience on a monument
Smiling at grief.”
This perfect womanhood, with dignity and honour, with wit and intelligence, with sympathy and love with beauty of mind irradiating the beauty of person, Shakespeare, with his immortal art, created for our delight. These “daughters of the sun” have an abiding place of affection in the heart of every lover of Shakespeare’s art.
But after his romantic glow of beauty, moonlight, music and love in the heart of the poet, Shakespeare seems to step into the tragic world, where with a deep penetrative insight, he sees the vision of absolute evil dominating in life after the moral world is disrupted by the actions of noblemen. What Greek masters of tragedy he tries to wrestle with the inscrutable destiny which guide the life of man on earth. In this totality of vision Shakespeare attains the spiritual heights reached by only a few great tragic writers in the world. Professor Bradley, Quillercouch, Robertson, Dover Wilson, Wilson Night and a host of other Shakespearean critics have studied the tragedies of Shakespeare in order to catch the final vision of the poet and they have tried to reconstruct a definite conception of tragedy in Shakespeare. Aristotle has given his analysis of Greek tragedies and to him tragedy is the story of a fall and ultimate undoing of a nobleman due to a curse of God, narrated with a high seriousness of purpose, with an elevated plane of concentrated reality in which music must play a dominant part. Besides, the spectacle of suffering will cause in the audience a catharsis, a purging of the soul of the emotions of pity and terror.
The conclusion of the moral world of good and evil will at last become the normal course of life with the sacrifice of the hero so that the final effect of tragedy would be “calmness of mind, all passions spent.” The hero in classical tragedy suffers from no evil within himself-it is the relentless hand of destiny that causes ruin and desolation in the life of a nobleman so that the final impression left in the audience may be summed up in the very words of Shakespeare:
As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods
They kill us for mere sport.
But Shakespeare created in his tragic heroes a tragic flaw-a weakness in otherwise noble nature which is the ultimate cause of his undoing. Evil is inherent in the very character of the hero and by this he creates his own destiny. Thus ambition in the noble Thane, selflove in King Lear, and jealousy in Othello and inaction in Hamlet are the very seed in their characters which ultimately would cause their ruin. And the tragic impression of the waste of goodness in these noble souls combined with the inner and outer conflict between the forces of evil and good form the theme of Shakespearean tragedy. And finally the grand spectacle of tragedy is the re-establishment of equilibrium of the moral forces of good and evil, once disturbed by the action of the hero in which lies the cathartic effect of pure tragedy. The greatness of the poet lies in the power of insight into human character and the appropriate dramatic poetry which Shakespeare employs in these high tragedies.
No doubt there are a good deal of melodramatic elements and comic relief in these pure tragedies, but we must remember that Shakespeare had to introduce them as he had to cater for a particular type of audience who would patroaise his theatre. That is why Shakespeare cleverly introduced in Macbeth the witches, the ghost of Banquo and the Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane; in Hamlet; the ghost, the grave-diggers, the play within a play, and the fencing bout between Hamlet and Laertes. But in spite of these elements, Shakespeare’s tragedies reach the height of pure tragedies through sheer art and larger concept of life.
Again another cause of greatness of Shakespearean genius lies in the very romantic attitude which the poet brought to bear in his great writing. Shakespeare throughout his career as a dramatist sustained within his soul a steady romantic attitude as he looked at life and human nature in all its complexity and protean manifestations. Shakespeare, whether delighting in spontaneous outbursts of youthful joy and vitality, and penning forth with a gusto all the strength and weakness of human love and desire in his high comedies; or in great tragic mood placing on the anvil of life the white heat of human passions and emitting sparks of vital thoughts and noble imagery from the all-consuming fire of the human soul, is always romantic to the core of his heart.
Juliet overnight” flowers from a child of fourteen to a full statured glow of womanhood at the magic touch of love in her heart and under the spell of moonlight revears her heart’s mysterious depth and profundity to Romeo as he whispers honey-sweet words to her ears:
“My bounty is as boundless as the sea
My love as deep, the more I give to thee
The more I have; for both are infinite.”
Who can catch this imagery wrung out from the coursing red blood of the young heart in its infinite range leading us to incomprehensible heights and depths of human passion and sentiment? This essential vagueness which touches the infinite is the ultimate measure of all romantic attitude in poets.
Or let us consider Cleopatra in that last tragic moment of her grand passion, as she rishes to the height of her Queenly dignity while ..she applies the fatal to her breast:
“Give me my robes, put on my crown, I have
Immortal longings in me……
Dost thou not see my babe at my breast
That sucks the nurse to sleep!”
Thus the Egyptian Queen whom age cannot wither nor custom stale her infinite variety makes her exit from this stage of the world to meet her lover in heaven!
It was this romantic attitude of Shakespeare which brought to the surface the hidden sufferings of the soul up-rooted from all its bearings for its momentary lapse of essential humanity into the murk and gloom of Evil Absolute. One murder kills the soul of Lady Macbeth but the punishment is more than the poor Queen can bear. She walks in her sleep, poor tormented woman’s heart, verging on to insanity and to ultimate suicide. The physical, horrors of the deed rather than moral scruples, overpower this frail piece of womanhood, after the terrible experience on the night of Duncan’s murder. She has been unsexed for that terrible moment against her better nature and she helped her ‘noble husband realise his onw ambition in life. The Golden Crown. In the silence of the night we stand in mute awe with the doctor and the woman attendant, as we watch with suspended breath this bundle of wrecked nerve, this lost soul, with a taper in her hand, her hair dishevelled, in a glimmering long white night gown, with a fixed stare in her hardened eyes which are denied the soothing influence of tears, rubbing her little hands with no waking consciousness and next moment our mind is filled with infinite pathos and pity as she wrings out a heart-rending sigh from the depth of her tortured soul, fixed eternally in the wheel of fire.
“Here’s the smell of blood still
All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten
This little hand, Oh, oh, oh!”
Is there any language adequate for the expression of what untold sufferings and ineffable pains are converged at the moment in the heart of this woe-be-gone Queen on the verge of insanity? But Shakespeare has done the miracle, he has successfully told us what can never be told in words!
And yet it is this very Shakespeare who tells us in a moment of disillusionment:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud capp’d towers, the gorgeious palace,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.