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EVERY age has its own difficulties in the appreciation of Shakespeare. The age in which he lived was too near to him to see him truly. From his contemporaries, and those rare and curious inquirers who collected the remnants of their talk, we learn that “his Plays took well”; and that he was "a handsome, well shaped man; very good company, and of a very ready and pleasant smooth wit." The easy-going and casual critics who were privileged to know him in life regarded him chiefly as a successful member of his own class, a prosperous actor-dramatist, whose energy and skill were given to the business of the theatre and the amusement of the play-going public. There was no one to make an idol of him while he lived. The newly sprung class to which he belonged was despised and disliked by the majority of the decent burgesses of the City of London; and though the players found substantial favour at the hands of the Court, and were applauded and imitated by a large following of young law-students and fashionable gallants, yet this favour and support brought them none the nearer to social consideration or worshipful esteem. In the City they were enemies, “the caterpillars of a commonwealth”; at the Court they were servants, and service is no heritage. It was not until the appearance of
the Folio Edition of 1623, that Shakespeare's dramatic writings challenged the serious attention of "the great variety of readers." From that time onward, his fame steadily advanced to the conquest of the world. Ben Jonson in his verses prefixed to the Folio, though he makes the largest claims for his friend, yet invokes him first of all as the “Soul of the Age, the applause, delight, the wonder of our Stage.” Milton, some nine years later, considers him simply as the author of a marvellous book. The readers of Shakespeare took over from the fickle players the trust and inheritance of his fame. An early example of purely literary imitation, by a close student of his works, may be seen in Sir John Suckling's plays, which are fuller of poetic than of dramatic reminiscence. While the Restoration theatre mangled and parodied the tragic masterpieces, a new generation of readers kept alive the knowledge and heightened the renown of the written word. Then followed two centuries of enormous study; editions, annotations, treatises, huddled one upon another's neck, until, in our own day, the plays have become the very standard and measure of poetry among all English-speaking peoples.
So Shakespeare has come to his own, as an English man of letters; he has been separated from his fellows, and recognised for what he is : perhaps the greatest poet of all time; one who has said more about humanity than any other writer, and has said it better; whose works are the study and admiration of divines and philosophers, of soldiers and statesmen, so that his continued vogue upon the stage is the smallest part of his immortality ; who has touched many spirits finely to fine issues, and has been for three centuries a source of delight and understanding, of wisdom and consolation.