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THE

FOOLS, JESTERS AND COMIC CHARACTERS

IN SHAKSPEARE.

A Lecture.

Shakspeare's fools are certainly copied from the life. The originals whom he copied were, no doubt, men of quick parts, lively and sarcastic. Though they were licensed to say anything, it was still necessary, to prevent giving offence, that everything they said should have a playful air. We may suppose, therefore, that they had a custom of taking off the edge of too sharp a speech by covering it hastily with the end of an old song, or any glib nonsense that came into their mind.”—Sir Joshua Reynolds.

“We have all a touch of folly, a speck of the motley. The men who will not own to some little taint of folly is either a great fool or a wiseacre. Fools have four quarters of the globe on their side, at the lowest computation. Take my word for it, he who hath not a dram of folly in his mixture hath pounds of much worse matter in his composition.”—Charles Lamb.

THE

FOOLS, JESTERS AND COMIC CHARACTERS

IN SHAKSPEARE.

1 Lecture,

MAN in a civilised

state is an associative being : he seldom

acts alone. There are but few amongst us, who would dare at any time to utter an unpleasant truth in religion, politics, science or art, unless backed up by some sect, school or party. This social union, formed by community and conformity of thought, is an aggregate of conventional respectabilities, wbich crystalises into the laws of custom or fashion, and repels individual spontaneity. There is now-a-days a fashion in everything, and the consequence is, that men are like halfpennies, nearly all alike; it would seem as if fashion had passed an of Uniformity” upon us, outlawing all eccentricity. Men are clipped and trimmed into shapes and patterns, like the trees in our old-fashioned gardens; the oddities, whims and caprices, which belong to the original growth of the individual, are planed down to the smooth level of mediocrity. There is a dull, sleepy and sulky common sense, which shapes and moulds our every-day life to one uniform standard. In spite of our boasted refinement, our manners are losing the charms of pictures

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queness. There is a coarseness of moral texture in our social constitution, and a vulgarity of affectation, which are always associated with the commonplace. We are too sensitive of the opinion of others, and like the caterpillar or hedgehog we curl and crumple into ourselves at every touch:

“ We eat and drink and scheme and plod,
And go to Church on Sunday,
And many are afraid of God,

And more of Mrs. Grundy." There is perhaps, as much folly in the world as ever, but we keep it to ourselves. We palliate, shuffle, equivocate and conceal our faults, and do not bring them to the light of day. Life is not an open procession, but a masquerade ; and we skulk behind manners, customs, and precedents, so that the strong impulses of nature are hidden in the refinements and glosses of art.

Mr. Mill, in his essay “ On Liberty,” has warned us in his most forcible language of the dangers, which arise from this tyranny of custom ; and has eloquently protested against any form of despotism, which breaks down the individuality of a people. He shows us that the Chinese have not for thousands of years progressed, because they have submitted to the governing of their thoughts and conduct, by the same maxims and ruleg. Let us hope there is enough counteractive good sense in our own country, to save us from such a stagnation of our social system.

This heavy weight of custom makes our lives tedious and monotonous. No wonder some of our philosophers are teaching us under the name of “pessimism,” that life is a mistake altogether-in fact a bore, too dismal even for a joke. St. Paul teaches us, that one of the alternatives of life is to forget God, to eat, drink, and be merry; but our pessimists tell us, as

there is no God, to eat, drink, and be sorry. Yet in spite of their sceptical teachings, we find that almost every one

6. When age

Disease or sorrow, strike him,
Inclines to think there is a God-
Or something very like Him.”

The pessimist has neither hope in the present nor faith in the future ; he looks at everything with an evil eye, and scoffs at the efforts of men to remove or mitigate social misery and distress. He is too matter of fact to have visions of the future; and you cannot make him believe that the time will come when the lamb shall lie down with the lion. He will tell you that can never be, unless the lamb is inside the lion. His philosophy of life may be summed up in the words of the Greek poet :-“ The happiest destiny is never to have been born; and the next best, by far, is to return as swiftly as may be, to the bourne whence we came.”

We have no sympathy with these doctrines of despair. They reveal a state of disease in our social life. It is noticeable that those who hold these lazy, captious and frivolous speculations are not the poor, but the rich. It is the abuse of prosperity, the super-refinement of fashion and the use of luxuries, palling the appetite and creating artificial cravings, together with the weary monotony of idleness and the want of a purpose in life, which have developed pessimism amongst us. No doubt some men are born with a temperament like Heraclitus to weep, and others like Democritus to laugh at their fellow men—the one regarding life as a tragedy, and the other as a comedy; but ordinarily existence is not so one-sided : and between these two extremes are endless gradations and combinations, mingling and interweaving one with another in a thousand shades and varieties of human

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