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larger grouping of the Folio division, and to exhibit separately the unfolding of Shakespeare's Comedy, History, and Tragedy in approximately chronological order within each class.
At the same time this division-a naïve product of Elizabethan stagecraft-was not without germs of ambiguity and confusion, with which the modern editor of Shakespeare has to reckon. It is, in fact, a somewhat clumsy compromise between classical tradition and modern needs. The terms tragedy' and 'comedy' had been for half a century the sport of contending associations. Humanism strove to give them rigorous and well-defined meanings. For men like Udall and Sackville Tragedy was the tragedy of Seneca, Comedy the comedy of Plautus. On the other hand, a mediæval usage, consecrated by Dante and by Chaucer, clung tenaciously to English habits of speech, and permitted any tale, dramatic or otherwise, that ended in adversity to be called a 'tragedy,' and any in which adversity was overcome a 'comedy.' The Humanists succeeded in limiting both terms to drama; but, as names of different dramatic species, neither could resist the loose popular usage, fortified as it was by the imperious Elizabethan demand for a mixed and varied diet of grave and gay. Ingenious pedantry solved the situation by advertising its 'tragical comedies,'1 its 'lamentable tragedies mixed full of pleasant mirth '2; and the tradition was not extinct when Polonius announced the players at
1 Apius and Virginia (c. 1562).
2 Cambises (c. 1562).
Elsinore. Such combinations implied that the stricter associations of 'tragedy' and 'comedy' were still felt. But the more prevalent effect of the disparity was a steady relaxation of the definite meaning of both terms, which allowed them to embrace between them almost the entire field of English dramatic effort. Francis Meres, in 1598, recognised only these two species among the plays he celebrates—even Henry IV. is with him a tragedy'; just as John Bale, half a century before, had added to his rude lists of the works of illustrious British authors' the simple description 'trag.,' 'com.' They came, in fact, far more rapidly into vogue than the classical ideals they originally stood for; writers of didactic or satirical moralities, for instance, who had been content in the first half of the reign to call their survivals of medieval allegory enterludes,' preferred, in the second half, to call them 'comedies.'1 Tragedy retained, by virtue of a single slender link, a recognisable kinship with its classic counterpart : it had to do with death. 'What,' it is asked in the opening lines of Kyd's Solyman and Perseda, ‘are tragedies but acts of death?' It is superfluous to recall Philostrate's reason for the 'tragical' quality of the play wherein 'Pyramus doth kill himself."
Between these 'mighty opposites,'-Tragedy, which could include 'pleasant mirth' without limit provided that some one died, and Comedy, which could be as
tender or sententious as it pleased provided that no one died, the History, a hardy provincial upstart, alone stood its ground. The 'History' was a purely Elizabethan product, redolent of the soil, thriving in an atmosphere charged with fiery patriotism and robust insensibility to defects of form. Regarded askance by academic critics (Meres, as has been said, ignores it altogether), and always tending, in the hands of a fine artist, to merge in the finer art of Tragedy or Comedy, the History' retained its separate and sturdy identity until the end of the century, mainly by virtue of the keen interest in the national past to which it ministered. For it was pre-eminently English history with which the History as such dealt; and English history near enough for its prevailing aims and passions to stir the sense of kinship in Elizabethan hearts, the reigns of kings who had defied national enemies still dangerous, or changed the dynastic fortunes of England. The vital qualities of the genus are to be found less in such a piece as the Chronicle History of King Leir and His Three Daughters, than in The Troublesome Reign of King John ('a warlike Christian and your Countryman, . . . who set himself against the Man of Rome '), or in The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth. Where the patriotic appeal of the subject was less pronounced, the interest was continually heightened by infusions of comedy or romance, and Greene eked out the History of James IV. of Scotland with fairy scenes. faintly prophetic of the Midsummer-Night's Dream; while his Friar Bacon was the type of a considerable
group of comedies in which nothing is historical but the name of an English king, whose shadowy figure moves in the background of a famous popular legend.1
The drama, when Shakespeare began to write, was thus a complete chaos of traditions imperfectly apprehended, and native instincts incompletely gratified. Shakespeare confronted that chaos, not with the aggressive vigour of Marlowe, but with a born artist's instinct for the neglected possibilities of art. He availed himself of the types he found, absolutely discarding almost nothing of what still had any hold upon the stage. His own temperament doubtless responded keenly enough to the likes and dislikes of the average Elizabethan in the matter of plays; he shared the instincts and impulses which even the grosser and cruder forms of Elizabethan art had blunderingly striven to satisfy. He struck out the eloquent and master-expression for their stammering speech, disclosed the secret intention of their caprices and vagaries, exhausted the possible delightfulness even of imperfect instruments, like doggerel or farce, before he threw them aside, and elicited from the disarray of Tragedy and Comedy and the crudity of 'History' vital and organic forms of art.
Tragedy centred, with him, not in the horror of sensational crime relieved by barren laughter, but in the profound pity stirred by the ruinous discords between character and circumstance, and in subtle
1 Thus, Fair Em borrows a setting from the reign of William Rufus; Look About You frames
the story of Robin Hood in at least traditional events of the reign of Henry II.
heightenings of this pity by 'daintily match'd' mirth.1 His Comedy, though fluctuating through yet more various phases of temper and method than his Tragedy, may still be said to centre in the harmonious play of humour, now radiant and joyous, now ironic and satirical, about a serious theme. The Shakespearean History, finally, though also touching the technical extremes of which it is capable, though approaching Marlowesque tragedy in Richard III., admitting large and glorious episodes of pure comedy in Henry IV., yet never dissolves into either, or resigns the pretension, in the fundamental framework of the action, to portray the heroic past of England.
The English histories form a compact phalanx by virtue of their common relation to England,—the 'heroine' as has not inaptly been said, of the whole series. From romantic English history of the type of Greene's James the Fourth Shakespeare steadfastly held aloof.
Hence the threefold classification adopted by his first editors corresponds to real lines of cleavage in Shakespeare's work. But they committed some oversights of arrangement which disguise the real homogeneity of each of the three groups. Neither Troilus and Cressida nor Cymbeline can be reconciled with the genius of Shakespearean tragedy. The Folio editors appear to have themselves withdrawn from their original decision to class the former among the tragedies, transferring it, at the last moment, to an isolated position
1 Funeral notes, as Sidney says, 'daintily match'd' with the hornpipe.