|The Awakening of Europe|
|by M. B. Synge|
|Book III of the Story of the World series. Covers the reformation in Germany, the Netherlands, France, and England, as well as the settlement of colonies in America. The rise of England and the Netherlands as sea powers, and the corresponding fall of Spain, as well as the rise of Russia, Austria, and the German states are also presented. Ages 11-18 |
A GREAT DRAMATIST
"Thou who didst the stars and sunbeams know,
Self-schooled, self-scanned, self-honoured, self-secure,
Didst tread on earth unguessed at."
OF all the great men who added to the glory of Elizabeth's England, William Shakspere was the greatest, though
neither the queen nor her people realised how great. Of the man himself the world knows nothing; with his work
the Old and New Worlds ring even to-day. Just a poor lad, born of farmer parents at Stratford-on-Avon, he made
his way to London as an actor and play-writer, and though he became popular, yet no one knew how
 great he really was till long years after he had died.
Now we know that he was one of the great "world-voices," "far-seeing as the sun," "the upper light of the
world,"—one of the greatest men that the world has ever seen.
He had little enough book-learning, "small Latin and less Greek"; but he knew mankind, he understood human
nature, as rare a gift then as it is now. And by this great gift he could make the people of Elizabeth's days
laugh and cry at will. Men cared about human life: he showed them human life, showed them men and women as they
really are, with all their smiles and all their sorrows, all their actions and all their thoughts. From
"The whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school."
The lonely exile crying to his king—
"Your will be done: this must my comfort be,
The sun that warms you here shall shine on me."
He tells his hearers of warriors and generals, of kings and statesmen,
"Of old, unhappy, far-off things,
And battles long ago."
There is a whole play about Julius Cæsar
and another about Coriolanus.
Like Spenser, too, this poet can take us into the fairy world. His fairy
 queen is called Titania, and the kingdom of the fairies is away in the Indies, where the fairy Puck and his
comrades circle the earth. These fairies have all the secrets of nature: they dance in the moonbeams, and they
sleep in the flowers, fanned by the wings of painted butterflies. Shakspere's fun breaks out in the endless
blunderings of the "Comedy of Errors" as well as in the "Merry Wives of Windsor," which he wrote for Queen
Elizabeth herself. Though only a country-born lad, he caught up the spirit of the times, and wrote such tragedy
and comedy as had not been written since the days of olden Greece.
Let us take one of his stories and tell it shortly.
There was a rich Jew called Shylock living at Venice. There was also a man named Antonio, "one in whom the
ancient Roman honour more appeared than any that drew breath in Italy." There was also a man called Bassanio, a
friend of Antonio's, who wanted to marry a wealthy lady at Venice called Portia. Would Antonio lend him some
money so that he could marry? Now, Antonio was expecting some ships back from the East laden with merchandise.
So the two friends went to Shylock, the rich Jew, and asked him to advance some money which should be repaid on
the arrival of the ships. Shylock offered a large sum of money, making only one condition, half in jest, half
in earnest, that if the money were not paid on the appointed day,
 Shylock should exact a pound of Antonio's flesh, to be cut where it pleased him. Antonio signed the bond,
thinking it was only "merry sport," and took the money. So Bassanio married Portia. But that very same day they
heard the sad news that Antonio's ships had been lost at sea, and that he could never now repay Shylock. He had
therefore been cast into prison.
At once Bassanio and Portia set out in all haste for Venice, to save, if possible, the friend who was suffering
for them. Portia knew how Bassanio loved his friend, how he would sacrifice "his life itself, his wife,
the world" for him, and she now made a plan. She wrote to her cousin, who was going to judge Antonio at the
trial, and begged to be allowed to plead instead. She dressed up in his robes of law and entered the court.
Looking round, she saw the merciless Shylock, she saw Bassanio standing by Antonio in an agony of distress.
Nobody recognised her, and the trial began. Her famous plea for mercy is one of Shakspere's finest passages,
that mercy which "droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath." But Shylock would have no
Antonio's bosom was bared for the knife, and the scales were ready to weigh the pound of flesh, when Portia
"Tarry a little; there is something else.
This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood;
The words expressly are, a pound of flesh."
 Now Shylock could not possibly take a pound of flesh without shedding blood, so by her clever action Portia
saved the life of Antonio, her husband's friend. Shylock escaped, Antonio's ships came in after all, and the
play ends happily with the joy of Portia and Bassanio.
Shakspere went on writing long after the death of Elizabeth. His plays grew very serious and thoughtful as
life went on. In 1610 he returned from the noisy London theatres to the peace of Stratford-on-Avon, where a few
years later he passed to
"The undiscover'd country from whose bourne
No traveller returns."
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