With the poem of " Venus and Adonis," " the first heir of my invention," as Shakspere calls it, the period of independent creation fairly began. The date of its publication was a very memorable one. * The " Faerie Queen " had appeared only three years before, and had placed Spenser without a rival at the head of English poetry. On the other hand, the two leading dramatists of the time passed at this moment suddenly away. Greene died in poverty and self-reproach in the house of a poor shoemaker. " Doll," he wrote to the wife he had abandoned, " I charge thee, by the love of our youth and by my soul's rest, that thou wilt see this man paid; for if he and his wife had not succoured me, I had died in the streets." " Oh, that a year were granted me to live," cried the young poet from his bed of death - " but 1 must die, of every man abhorred! Time, loosely spent, will not again be won! My time is loosely spent - and I undone! " A year later, the death of Marlowe in a street brawl removed the only rival whose powers might have equalled Shakspere's own. He was now about thirty; and the twenty-three years which elapsed between the appearance of the " Adonis " and his death were filled with a series of masterpieces. Nothing is more characteristic of his genius than its incessant activity.
Through the five years which followed the publication of his early poem he seems to have produced on an average two dramas a year. When we attempt, however, to trace the growth and progress of the poet's mind in the order of his plays, we are met, at least in the case of many of them, by an absence of certain information as to the dates of their appearance. The facts on which enquiry has to build are extremely few. "Venus and Adonis," with the "Lucrece," must have been written before their publication in 1593-4; the Sonnets, though not published till 1609, were known in some form among his private friends as early as 1598. His earlier plays are denned by a list given in the "Wit's Treasury" of Francis Meres in 1598, though the omission of a play from a casual catalogue of this kind would hardly warrant us in assuming its necessary non-existence at the time. The works ascribed to him at his death are fixed, in the same approximate fashion, through the edition published by his fellow-actors. Beyond these meagre facts, and our knowledge of the publication of a few of his dramas in his lifetime, all is uncertain; and the conclusions which have been drawn from these, and from the dramas themselves, as well as from assumed resemblances with, or references to, other plays of the period, can only be accepted as approximations to the truth.
The bulk of his lighter comedies and historical dramas can be assigned with fair probability to the period from about 1593, when he was known as nothing more than an adapter, to 1598, when they are mentioned in the list of Meres. They bear on them indeed the stamp of youth. In "Love's Labour's Lost" the young playwright, fresh from his own Stratford, flings himself into the midst of the brilliant England which gathered round Elizabeth, busying himself as yet for the most part with the surface of it, with the humours and quixotisms, the wit and the whim, the unreality, the fan-tastioextravagance, which veiled its inner nobleness. Country lad as he is, he can exchange quip and repartee with the best; he quizzes the verbal wit and high-flown extravagance of thought and phrase which Euphues had made fashionable in the court world of the time. He shares the delight in existence which was so marked a feature of the age; he enjoys the mistakes, the contrasts, the adventures, of the men about him; his fun breaks almost riotously out in the practical jokes of the "Taming of the Shrew" and the endless blunderings of the "Comedy of Errors." His work is as yet marked by little poetic elevation, or by passion; but the easy grace of the dialogue, the dexterous management of a complicated story, the genial gaiety of his tone, and the music of his verse, promised a master of social comedy as soon as Shakspere turned from the superficial aspects of the world about him to find a new delight in the character and actions of men.
In the " Two Gentlemen of Verona," his painting of manners was suffused by a tenderness and ideal beauty, which formed an effective protest against the hard though vigorous character-painting which the first success of Ben Jonson in " Every Man in his Humour" brought at the time into fashion. But quick on these lighter comedies followed two, in which his genius started fully into life. His poetic power, held in reserve till now, showed itself with a splendid profusion in the brilliant fancies of the " Midsummer Night's Dream;" and passion swept like a tide of resistless delight through " Romeo and Juliet." Side by side however with these passionate dreams, these delicate imaginings and piquant sketches of manners, had been appearing during this short interval of intense activity his historical dramas. No plays seem to have been more popular, from the earliest hours of the new stage, than dramatic representations of our history. Marlowe had shown in his "Edward the Second " what tragic grandeur could be reached in this favourite field; and, as we have seen, Shakspere had been led naturally towards it by his earlier occupation as an adapter of stock pieces like "Henry the Sixth " for the new requirements of the stage.
He still to some extent followed in plan the older plays on the subjects he selected, but in his treatment of their themes he shook boldly off the yoke of the past. A larger and deeper conception of human character than any of the old dramatists had reached displayed itself in Richard the Third, in Falstaff, or in Hotspur; while in Constance and Richard the Second the pathos of human suffering was painted as even Marlowe had never dared to paint it No dramas have done so much for Shakspere's enduring popularity with his countrymen as these historical plays. Nowhere is the spirit of our history so nobly rendered. If the poet's work echoes sometimes our national prejudice and unfairness of temper, it is instinct throughout with English humour, with our English love of hard fighting, our English faith in goodness and in the doom that waits upon triumphant evil, our English pity for the fallen.