IT is not only that the personality and experience of the artist mold all details of his art, while that in turn reveals his essential character. When an artist has worked through a long period of time, the different aspects of his development find full expression in the works coming in successive periods. If, then, his works are studied in the chronological order in which they were produced, they reveal intimately the development of the artist’s mind, character and philosophy. With such a master as Goethe, for example, passing through many phases of life, experiencing a succession of intellectual, as of personal, love-affairs, this becomes deeply important. From the sentimental romanticism of Werther, the wild outpourings of Götz, and the early passionate scenes of Faust, through the classical restraint of Tasso and I phigenia to Wilhelm Meister and the noblest portions of Faust, on to the profundities and obscurities of the last written scenes of the Second Part of Fausthow wonderfully the achievement of Goethe’s greatest work of art, his personality and character, is revealed.
The many-sided modern genius, Wagner, creator of music first, but poet, dramatic artist and impresario in only lesser degree, is equally revealed in the development of his character and life through struggles, adventures, miseries and achievements, in the succession of his works. From his early brilliant, but often bombastic, compositions, through the Flying Dutchman to Tannhauser and Lohengrin, in which he found himself, on through the Nibelungen Ring and Tristan und Isolde to Parsif al, what development of genius, freedom, power and of fundamental philosophy of life is evidenced.
This holds even with so purely and consistently objective a dramatist as Shakespeare. The tradition of his outer life is dim; indeed, there are serious scholars who question whether the man who was born at Stratford-on-the-Avon in 1564 and died there in 1616 really wrote the dramas that bear his name; yet we know Shakespeare, not only in the essentials of his spirit, but in all the unfolding of his art and philosophy of life, merely through the dramas themselves. Modern scholarship, exhausting all evidence internal and external, has given us substantially the chronology of the plays; and the changing spirit of these through the successive periods of the master’s life reveals the master. Not that Shakespeare ever surely expresses himself in the words of any character : no other dramatist ever worked with such consistent objectivity as he. It is never Shakespeare who speaks, but always the dramatic character. Twice we long to identify him with his creation; but even in Hamlet and Prospero we cannot be sure; and if Shakespeare does express himself through the words spoken by these two, it is due to the agreement of the dramatic situation with the circumstances and mood in Shakespeare’s own life at the time. Nevertheless, in each of the dramas the entire moral background reveals the master. How does the play focus as a whole in relation to life? What elements are brought into the foreground, what subordinated or suppressed? What is the dominant mood of the whole? The answers to these questions give Shakespeare.
In the first play independently from his hand Love’s Labor’s. Lost, produced probably when he was twenty-six, there is nothing of the ethical depth and profound grasp of the laws of life that mark his later plays. It is full of a young man’s exuberant delight in the beauty of nature and the amazing variety of human character and action. With tiresome quibbles and adolescent punning, its mood is one of pure joy in just being able to look out on the world. There is the same warm interest in every absurdity and eccentricity of human nature, as in the nobilities and beauties of life. The pleasant little moral with which the play closeswhere Biron is told to make his jokes in a hospital for one year and cause the poor sufferers to laugh, and then, when the sting is gone from his humor, he may hope to win Rosaline’s hand-is characteristic of the slight ethical interest of the play.
The same mood is in all the early comedies, while the one tragedy of the period, even though rewritten later on, is closely akin. In Romeo and Juliet the love is wholly on the plane of the senses, with the fresh awakening of youth. Juliet, with all her charm, is still an adolescent heroine. Suddenly, among these dramas, appears one, called a comedy, but which involves deeply tragic elements, with a hero who outgrows his plot and setting; and in The Merchant of Venice we think we find Shakespeare’s first deep awakening to the ethical problems and laws of life; but an awakening not yet complete. Unique among the greater dramas of Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice closes with its ethical tendencies unfinished. We see Shylock grow from what we thought was to be a caricature of the Jew, into a great many-sided character, with all the nobility and baseness of human nature in him. It was right that he should be balked of his revenge; but what of the humanity that sobbed for the ring that Jessica bartered for a monkey in a night’s debauch? That remains unfulfilled. It was right that Antonio should be freed and Portia and Bassanio happy; but what of the mean Jew-baiting on the part of those who reach up and take a name that does not belong to themthe name of Christ? That remains all unpunished. Shakespeare himself seems to have felt this; for the play really ends at the close of the fourth act, where Shylock, bowed and broken, balked of the one passion into which persecution had turned his humanity, goes out alone into the night; while the “Christians,” who have beautifully preached mercy and callously performed the opposite, go merrily home to Belmont. To stop there would be too bitter; and so Shakespeare has added the beautiful anticlimax of the fifth act, where the moonlight sleeps upon the bank, music sounds out its calming charm and we share the happy reunion of the wedded lovers.
Passing over the history plays, in which Shakespeare not only expressed his patriotism but studied the vices and perfidies of courts and kings, we find him, at thirty-five, turning aside to rest himself and us with that lovely poetic interlude, which well deserves its name because in it everything goes As You Like It. Here Shakespeare turns from the big but marred life of human society to the sincere reality of Nature with the expression of simple human instincts on this background. With all its charm, however, a strain of pessimism runs through As You Like It. It shows in the half-humorous cynicism of Jaques, in the mood of reaction on the world in other characters. Had some shadow fallen across Shakespeare’s inner life, fitting him to deal with the darker problems of his great tragedies? If so, his reaction was still youthful. While the characters of As You Like It talk finely about “the sweet uses of adversity,” like most of the world, they abandon those sweet uses at the earliest opportunity; and as they return at the end of the play to the larger life of the world again, so Shakespeare makes his return in that unrivaled series of great tragedies marking the middle period of his creative life.
How great the development of his mind and spirit evidenced in these ! Grappling with the relation of men to the world-forces that struggle in the arena of time in Julius Caesar, facing the deepest mystery of personality in Hamlet, portraying the destructive sweep of fierce passions in Othello, Lear and Macbeth, unleashing the great biological energies of man in Antony and Cleopatra, with the world as the stake for which they contendthere is no deep Shakespeare fails to sound, no conflict he does not seem to understand.
He did not stop here. The late plays we call romances, since they include tragedy and comedy in one. They end happily, but include deeply tragic elements. There is far less use of dramatic power, but a new ethical spirit of forgiveness, reconciliation and magnanimity in Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. Their mood is one of serene acceptance of life, with light and shadow, pain and joy mingled. When we read through such a fireside story of human life as The Winter’s Tale, enjoy its fairy-like adventures, respond to its pain, and come in the end to the betrothal of the young lovers and the reunion of the long estranged’ husband and wife, we can almost see Shakespeare lay down his pen with that sad, grave smile that mingles in one the laughter and tears that with divided sway rule over our common human heart. What a road he had traveled, and how intimately we come to know all the significant phases in the development of his mind and heart, through the succession of the plays!
As a closing illustration of the revelation of an artist’s development through his works, consider for a moment two masterpieces of Michael Angelo, both presenting the same themethe dead body of Christ in the arms of the Madonna, and coming, the one from near the beginning, the other at the end, of the master’s working life.
The first of these is in the chapel on your right hand as you enter St. Peter’s in Rome. After Michael Angelo had left Florence at the crisis of the struggle between his patrons, the Medici, and the great preacher, Savonarola, who had wakened him, he journeyed about northern Italy and thence to Rome, where, not long after the execution of Savonarola, he carved this marble groupthe Madonna supporting on her splendid knees the dead body of her son. The center of the work is not the dead Christ, but the Madonna, who sustains easily the limp figure across her lap. She is like a Venus de Milo made human and Christian by centuries of suffering. She looks across her dead son beyond and beyond, in restrained, understanding grief, as if she knew that, in spite of the bitter agony of the present, the issue would be well. There is hope through the gloom of the moment chosen, strong, courageous acceptance of life with all its pain.
Behind the high altar of the Cathedral of Florence stands the other work, found unfinished in Michael Angelo’s workshop after his death at the age of nearly eighty-nine. Vasari tells how day after day the master drove his chisel fiercely into the stone, seeking strength, as well as relief from the thoughts that brooded over him. Here the Madonna is not the center, but the limp Christ. He hangs heavily on the arms of his mother, with Mary Magdalen coldly supporting from one side, while Joseph assists in upholding the body from be-hind. “The man of sorrows and acquainted with grief”this Christ is the one who prayed that the cup might pass from him. The hanging figure, with the mood of seeming failure on the worn face and wearied body, wrings our heart-strings with all the weight of tragedy that is human life.
The beginning and the end; between the two lies the career of Michael Angelo : the dreams too vast for the world about him to make attainable; the succession of artistic tragedies; the plan of a tomb for Julius Second that should outrival the temples of antiquity, the year long labor in the mountains to bring out the marble, the Pope changing his mind, his successors indifferent, the few scattered statues and the shrunken echo in St. Peter’s in Chains, the only issue. Another pope, interested in Florence, sends Michael Angelo into the papal quarries to bring marble for the façade of San Lorenzo. Months of quarrying and road-building follow; while a marble block on the square before San Lorenzo and a few others beside the sea are the only evidence of the gigantic labors, and San Lorenzo remains without its façade to-day. Then the days of building fortifications to protect Florence from Medicean enemies, with nights of “working stealthily” at the figures to adorn the Medicean tombs : it is all herethe whole life-history of Michael Angeloin those two masterpieces that bound his creative life.