CHAPTER IX. THE MIDDLE PERIOD
Turning again to the plays, there is reason to believe that "The Merry Wives of Windsor" followed "Henry IV." The character of Falstaff, first known as Oldcastle, had taken the town, but the name had been changed at the instance of the eighth Lord Cobham, a descendant of the great Lollard, Sir John Oldcastle. Falstaff's humour made ample atonement for his faults, and the desire to improve his acquaintance is said by several authorities to have been expressed by Queen Elizabeth herself. We are told that her Majesty requested the poet to present the fat knight in love, and that he obeyed instructions in a few weeks. There is no mistaking the high spirits in which the work is written; they are still ringing through every line. The poet remembered the old days of Sir Thomas Lucy of Charlecote, and gave the knight's arms to Mr. Justice Shallow openly and unrebuked. Under the ægis of royalty, he could afford to let himself go and hit back at the astonished game-preserver. "The Merry Wives" was no more to its author than a merry jest, made in fulfilment of a royal request, a payment of long-standing scores in the best humour possible, and as soon as it was off his hands the poet turned to another historical subject and wrote "Henry V."
With the close of "Henry V." Shakespeare left the arena of English history, never to enter it again on his own initiative; for, as will be seen, his share in "Henry VIII." was small. Comedy was for the moment in his heart. Perhaps it was a relief to him, after the strenuous time he had passed through, to pass to his lighter muse and express himself in the brightest vein that could not bear misinterpretation. He turned to an Italian author, probably Ariosto, for a part of "Much Ado about Nothing," but he drew the least vital part from the foreign source; the most of the comedy ran sparkling from his own brain. "As You Like It" followed "Much Ado," and the date must be about 1600. It is another clear case of adaptation, and the scenes of the play given to the Forest of Arden breathe the pastoral spirit in a fashion that we look for in vain elsewhere. "Twelfth Night" would appear to have been the third comedy following the sequence of historical plays, and the date would seem to be 1601.
About this time the poet found himself in a very delicate situation. He had referred to the expedition of the Earl of Essex in terms of eulogy, and when that enterprise failed, Essex revolted against his sovereign, aided and abetted by the poet's patron, the Earl of Southampton. Part of the preliminary arrangements for the conspiracy consisted in arranging for performances of Shakespeare's "Richard II.," in which, of course, the king is murdered, the object being to show that regicide was of no very distant date. Shakespeare's company was persuaded to revive the play at the "Globe" just before the abortive rising in favour of Essex, who, having lost his head metaphorically, was now to lose it literally. Happily for England, Shakespeare himself was not involved in the trouble. Oddly enough, he published in the year of Essex's death and Southampton's imprisonment a curious poem, "The Phœnix and the Turtle." Nobody has been able to fathom its meaning, though it may be that those who connect it with the Essex débâcle may yet find a clue to the mystery.
After this year even comedy would seem to have lost its appeal and savour for a time. The poet had received a shock that we cannot quite estimate or understand, and turning to Plutarch's Lives for inspiration, he wrote the famous tragedy "Julius Cæsar," in many respects a work that must always defy adequate representation on the stage. How it could have passed muster on the bare Elizabethan boards is a puzzle. Next in order came the masterpiece by which his name is known to the widest circle of his followers, "Hamlet," yet another adaptation of a work that had enjoyed popularity for some years in London and the country. There are many references in Shakespeare's "Hamlet" to contemporary events, including the triumph of the company of boy actors known as "The Children of the Chapel," who in a few years had advanced in popular favour, and were now threatening the receipts of the established houses and companies. History repeats itself. Then as now there was a demand for novelty, sensation, and the infant prodigy was in demand. In "Hamlet," too, Shakespeare shows that technical knowledge of his art to which reference has been made earlier in this little survey. Richard Burbage was the first Hamlet, and the tragedy was played in Shakespeare's time both at Oxford and Cambridge.
Dr. Sidney Lee, than whom no greater authority is needed, is inclined to set "Troilus and Cressida" next in the list of plays, and to give it date 1603. Some hold that the play hides a satire upon some of the poet's contemporaries, but there is insufficient evidence to justify the rather laboured conclusions that uphold the contention, which at least is of no more than momentary interest. It is easy to find, and difficult to deny, these hidden meanings in the work of one who left no clue to any suggestion or satire embodied in his plays.