The daring which turned England into a people of "adventurers," the sense of inexhaustible resources, the buoyant freshness of youth, the intoxicating sense of beauty and joy, which created Sidney and Marlowe and Drake, were passing away before the consciousness of evil and the craving to order man's life aright before God. A new political world, healthier, more really national, but less picturesque, less wrapt in the mystery and splendour which poets love, was rising with the new moral world. Rifts which were still little were widening hour by hour, and threatening ruin to the great fabric of Church and State, which the Tudors had built up, and to which the men of the Renascence clung passionately. From this new world of thought and feeling Shakspere stood utterly aloof. Of the popular tendencies of Puritanism - and great as were its faults, Puritanism may fairly claim to be the first political system which recognized the grandeur of the people as a whole - Shakspere knew nothing. His roll of dramas is the epic of civil war. The Wars of the Roses fill his mind, as they filled the mind of his contemporaries.
It is not till we follow him through the series of plays from "Richard the Second" to "Henry the Eighth" that we realize how profoundly the memory of the struggle between York and Lancaster had moulded the temper of the people, how deep a dread of civil war, of baronial turbulence, of disputes over the succession it had left behind it. From such a risk the Crown seemed the one security. With Shakspere as with his contemporaries the Crown is still the centre and safeguard of the national life. His ideal England is an England grouped round a king such as his own Henry V., a born ruler of men, with a loyal people about him, and his enemies at his feet. Socially too the poet reflects the aristocratic view of life which was shared by all the nobler spirits of the Elizabethan time. Coriolanus is the embodiment of a great noble; and the taunts which Shakspere hurls in play after play at the rabble only echo the general temper of the Renascence. But he shows no sympathy with the struggle of feudalism against the Crown. He had grown up under the reign of Elizabeth; he had known no ruler save one who had cast a spell over the hearts of Englishmen. The fear of misrule was dim and distant; his thoughts were absorbed, as those of the country were absorbed, in the struggle for national existence, and the heat of such a struggle left no time for the thoughts of civil liberty.
Nor were the spiritual sympathies of the poet those of the coming time. Turn as others might to the speculations of theology, man and man's nature remained with him an inexhaustible subject of interest. Caliban was among his latest creations. It is impossible to discover whether his faith, if faith there were, was Catholic or Protestant. It is hard, indeed, to say whether he had any religious belief or no. The religious phrases which are thinly scattered over his works are little more than expressions of a distant and imaginative reverence. But on the deeper grounds of religious faith his silence is significant. He is silent, and the doubt of Hamlet deepens his silence, about the after-world. " To die," it may be, was to him as to Claudio, " to go we know not whither." Often as his " questionings " turn to the riddle of life and death, he leaves it a riddle to the last, without heeding the common theological solutions around him. " We are such stuff as dreams are made of, and our little life is rounded with a sleep".
The contrast between the spirit of the Elizabethan drama and the new temper of the nation became yet stronger when the death of Shakspere left the sovereignty of the English stage to Ben Jonson. Jonson retained it almost to the moment when the drama itself perished in the storm of the Civil War. Webster and Ford, indeed, surpassed him in tragic grandeur, Massinger in facility and grace, Beaumont and Fletcher in poetry and inventiveness; but in the breadth of his dramatic quality, his range over every kind of poetic excellence, Jonson was excelled by Shakspere alone. His life retained to the last the riotous, defiant colour of the earlier dramatic world, in which he had made his way to fame. The stepson of a bricklayer, he enlisted as a volunteer in the wars of the Low Countries, killed his man in single combat in sight of both armies, and returned at nineteen to London to throw himself on the stage for bread. At forty-five he was still so vigorous that he made his way to Scotland on foot. Even in old age his "mountain belly," his scarred face, and massive frame became famous among the men of a younger time, as they gathered at the "Mermaid" to listen to his wit, his poetry, his outbursts of spleen and generosity, of delicate fancy, of pedantry, of riotous excess.
His entry on the stage was marked by a proud resolve to reform it. Already a fine scholar in early manhood, and disdainful of writers who, like Shakspere, " had small Latin and less Greek," Jonson aimed at a return to classic severity, to a severer criticism and taste. He blamed the extravagance which marked the poetry around him, he studied his plots, he gave symmetry and regularity to his sentences and conciseness to his phrase. But creativeness disappears: in his social comedies we are amongst qualities and types rather than men, amongst abstractions and not characters. His comedy is no genial reflection of life as it is, but a moral, satirical effort to reform manners. It is only his wonderful grace and real poetic feeling that lightens all this pedantry. He shares the vigour and buoyancy of life which distinguished the school from which he sprang. His stage is thronged with figures. In spite of his talk about correctness, his own extravagance is only saved from becoming ridiculous by his amazing force. If he could not create characters, his wealth of striking details gave life to the types which he substituted for them.
His poetry, too, is of the highest order; his lyrics of the purest, lightest fancy: his masques rich with gorgeous pictures; his pastoral, the " Sad Shepherd," fragment as it is, breathes a delicate tenderness. But, in spite of the beauty and strength which lingered on, the life of our drama was fast ebbing away. The interest of the people was in reality being drawn to newer and graver themes, as the struggle of the Great Rebellion threw its shadow before it, and the efforts of the playwrights to arrest this tendency of the time by fresh excitement only brought about the ruin of the stage. The grossness of the later comedy is incredible. Almost as incredible is the taste of the later tragedians for horrors of incest and blood. The hatred of the Puritans to the stage was not a mere longing to avenge the insults which it had levelled at Puritanism; it was in the main the honest hatred of God-fearing men against the foulest depravity presented in a poetic and attractive form.