In the field of comedy, Shakespeare’s supremacy is hardly less assured. From the nature of this kind of drama, we do not expect in it the depth of penetration into human motive or the call upon our profounder sympathies that we find in Tragedy; and the conventional happy ending of Comedy makes difficult the degree of truth to life that one expects in serious plays. Yet the comedies of Shakespeare are far from superficial. Those written in the middle of his career, such as “As You Like It” and “Twelfth Night,” not only display with great skill many sides of human nature, but with indescribable lightness and grace introduce us to charming creations, speaking lines rich in poetry and sparkling with wit, and bring before our imaginations whole series of delightful scenes. “The Tempest” 6 does more than this. While it gives us again much of the charm of the earlier comedies, it is laden with the mellow wisdom of its author’s riper years.

“The Alchemist,”〖H. C., xlvii, 543ff.〗 representing the work of Ben Jonson, belongs to a type which Shakespeare hardly touched—the Realistic Comedy. It is a vivid satire on the forms of trickery prevailing in London about 1600—alchemy, astrology, and the like. The plot is constructed with the care and skill for which its author is famous; and though its main purpose is the exposure of fraud, and much of its interest lies in its picture of the time, yet, in the speeches of Sir Epicure Mammon, for instance, it contains some splendid poetry. Dekker’s “The Shoemaker’s Holiday”〖H. C., xlvii, 469ff.〗 in a much gayer mood, shows us another side of London life, that of the respectable tradesfolk. Something of what Jonson and Dekker do for the city, Massinger does for country life in his best known play, “A New Way to Pay Old Debts,”〖H. C., xlvii, 859ff.〗 one of the few Elizabethan dramas outside of Shakespeare which have held the stage down to our own time. Massinger’s characters, like Jonson’s, are apt to be more typical embodiments of tendencies, less individuals whom one comes to know, than Shakespeare’s; yet this play retains its interest and power of rousing emotion as well as its moral significance. The “Philaster”〖H. C., xlvii, 667ff.〗 of Beaumont and Fletcher belongs to the same type of romantic drama as “The Tempest”—the type of play which belongs to Comedy by virtue of its happy ending, but contains incidents and passages in an all but tragic tone. Less convincing in characterization than Shakespeare, Beaumont and Fletcher yet amaze us by the brilliant effectiveness of individual scenes, and sprinkle their pages with speeches of poetry of great charm.

The dramas of the Elizabethan period printed in The Harvard Classics serve to give a taste of the quality of this literature at its highest, but cannot, of course, show the surprising amount of it, or indicate the extreme literary-historical interest of its rise and development. Seldom in the history of the world has the spirit of a period found so adequate an expression in literature as the Elizabethan spirit did in the drama; seldom can we see so completely manifested the growth, maturity, and decline of a literary form. But beyond these historical considerations, we are drawn to the reading of Shakespeare and his contemporaries by the attraction of their profound and sympathetic knowledge of mankind and its possibilities for suffering and joy, for sin and nobility, by the entertainment afforded by their dramatic skill in the presentation of their stories, and by the superb poetry that they lavished so profusely on their lines.

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