Page images
PDF
EPUB

Shakspeare, then, bad no idealisms which he wished to present in visible forms beyond those which would be found in the exact representation of nature. If critics have since professed to discover in his works the profoundest revelations of art and science, that is because those arts and sciences are found in the facts presented us by the poet, and not because they were consciously present to his mind.

It is this continued freshness and nudity of mind, ever open to the impressions of experience, that prevents him from falling into that mannerism or unity of style and treatment, into which, with his single exception, all other poets and artists have fallen. His mind is never stationary; he never contemplates his subject from one point of view exclusively; he is not a narrator, a spectator ab extra, or an epic poet, but he is intensely dramatic; that is, his own personality is sunk entirely in that of his creations. In this respect he is superior to any poet that ever lived, not merely in the complete embodiment of the characters he introduces, but in their number and variety. Every known region of the globe is laid under contribution ; Greeks, Romans, Italians, French, Englishmen, Asiatics, Egyptians; ancient, modern, mediaval times. Every rank, every profession, every age and condition of life passed before his eyes ;-once seen never to be forgotten; once stored up in his memory, as in a treasure-house, to be summoned forth, not as pale colourless spectres

What story coldly tells, what poets feign
At second hand and picture without brain,

Senseless and soulless shows'but with their full complement of humanity, action, thought, feelings, words, infinite shades of expressions and emotions. More true also to nature than other dramatists, Shakspeare's characters are never the mouthpiece of uniform sentiments, passions, or temptations; they are not the living embodiments of abstract qualities which never vary and never grow,

The masterless passion is shadowed off by endless varieties and transitional modes of feeling. It is deposed from its seat by inferior motives, and restored when the due time comes. The brave are not always brave; the cruel not always unmerciful. Though the unity of the character is never lost sight of, it is not a stagnant uniformity, but grows and develops with the action, and is acted on by the circumstances of the play or the influences of others. As in the infinite variety of nature, form, colour, smell, contour, grow harmoniously and simultaneously, and all from the original organism of the plant-are not, as in human mechanism, the result of successive efforts -so it is in Shak

spearc. speare. The unity of the character is never lost in its diversity; the widest apparent divergence from its primitive conception and outset may be traced back, step by step, with the accuracy of a natural and necessary law. Action, speech, expression, the colour and metre of the diction, grow out of the original unity of the character, and yet mould themselves with plastic ease to every diversity of its sentiments and feelings.

It is this ever-varying posture of mind, this flexibility in the style, structure, and colour of his language, adapting itself to every movement of the thought, that makes it so difficult to determine on any common measure of the poet's mind, or, beyond the general power they exhibit, to determine what is genuine in his plays and what is not so. Conclusions derived from some supposed type of style and metre must not be trusted. How can they be, unless we shall have ascertained beforehand in any given case that they are incompatible with the poet's purpose or conception? Homer felt no difficulty in putting heroic words and heroic hexameters in the mouth of Thersites; a catalogue of the ships falls into the same rhythm with the anger of Achilles. The common soldier, or the barbarous Thracian, utters his thoughts in as choice Greek, as musical and as sonorous as dipus or Agamemnon. But with Shakspeare the style and metre are moulded by the thought, and not the thought by the metre. Common every-day thoughts fall into prose; Dogberry and Sir Toby Belch rise not into the solemnity of verse. Falstaff and the humours of Eastcheap are the prose and the comedy of Henry IV. and the palace.

That such a writer as this could not fail of being popular with his countrymen we may well believe, and the evidence that he was so is full and unquestionable. It is clear from the repeated references made to him in the writings of contemporary poets. It is clear from the influence he exercised upon the stage; for however inferior subsequent dramatists might be to the great original, it requires very little reading to discover how much in style, composition, regularity of structure, delineation of character, they were indebted to his example. It is clear from the number of his dramas, from the repeated editions of them during his lifetime, from the competition of the booksellers to secure the right of publishing them, from the admiration, not to say the envy, of those to whom theatrical audiences were far less indulgent." Nor was this popularity purchased by vicious condescension to the popular tastes :

"With such a show As fool and fight is.'

Thc

The occasional coarseness of Shakspeare is the coarseness of strong Englishmen, who laughed and grew fạt' over jokes which might shock the delicacy and moral digestion of more refined ages, or more sensitive and sentimental races, but did them no more harm mentally than their tough beef dressed with saffron and ambergris, or their hundred-herring pies, or tainted red-deer pasties, interfered with their bodily health. Think of an age that mixed sugar with its wines, and frothed its sack with lime; Homeric in its achievements and in its appetites, in its tastes and its enterprises! But Sbakspeare is refinement itself as compared with some of his contemporary and with most succeeding dramatists. He does not rely for interesting his hearers on the display of moral or mental horrors, or questionable liaisons, in which so much of the ancient Italian fiction abounded. If we except • Pericles' and “Titus Andronicus,' there is throughout his plays an absence of the monstrous and the horrible; and the poems of the poet are wholly employed in delineating action and character, either within the ordinary reach of probability, or sanctioned by historical evidence.

But his popularity is also evidenced by his extraordinary profusion. For six-and-thirty years successively he kept possession of the stage, and riveted his claims to popularity by producing seven-and-thirty dramas within that period : not of mere farce or incident—not hasty, incorrect, and tumultuous—but as much superior to the dramas of others in their ease and elaboration as for still higher qualities of genius. Not one of these plays was reproduced in another form : scarcely a word or sentence in any of the thirty-seven can be traced to other sources. This is as wonderful as anything else in Shakspeare. Other poets' toil after him in vain.' Tears and laughter, the inseparable attendants of surpassing genius, are equally and at all times, and in all degrees, at Shakspeare's command. The wit of Dogberry and the sailors in “The Tempest,' the wit of kings in 'Henry IV.' and ` Love's Labour's Lost, the wit of Falstaff and of Hamlet; native wit, philosophic wit, the wit of the fat and of the lean man; wit in the half-glimmerings of dawning reason, and of reason trenching upon madness; the wit of temperaments like Mercutio's, of topers like Sir Toby Belch, of mischief like Maria and Cleopatra, of confident villany like Richard III. -all these, and many more, flow from him with inexhaustible fertility. Nor is the pathetic and the tragic exhibited under less multiplicity of forms. Nor is it less sudden and meteoric than the wit. The reader is taken by surprise. It flashes on him with the suddenness and vividness of an electric flash. He is

prostrated

prostrated and melted by it, before he is aware. Whether the reader be prepared' for what is coming, whether the poet in the consciousness of his might forewarns him that he may be forearmed, or whether he darts on him by surprise, the result is the same, it is inevitable. In Falstaff's ridiculous exploits, though the whole scene is inexpressibly comic, the burst, ' By the Lord, I knew ye, as well as he that made ye,' &c., is as sudden and surprising as if it had flashed upon us out of the darkness—out of the most serious scene; as in “Lear, whilst every fibre of the heart is quivering with irrepressible emotion, one expression in his dying speech, · Pray you, undo this button,' standing conspicuous in its commonplaceness against the rest, sweeps away the little self-restraint that remains to us with the suddenness and overwhelming force of a torrent.

Yet as if the ordinary construction of the drama did not furnish employment sufficient for his unbounded energies ;-as if he could not crowd his conception and his characters within the allotted range, Shakspeare is fond at times of multiplying difficulties. For it is to this tendency that must be attributed the double action in some of his plays. The principal action has its shadow in some contemporaneous and subordinate one. In · Hamlet,' avenging his father, is another Hamlet; in ‘Lear,' exposed to filial ingratitude, is a Glo'ster equally ill-treated and betrayed by his bastard son the moral and the natural bastardy. Lesser examples may be seen in • Taming the Shrew,' and in Falstaff personating Henry IV., a comic presentment of the serious interview between that king and his son ;—as if the poet mocked his own tragedy by comedy, or lowered it by an obtrusive parallelism of inferior scale and interest. What writer besides Shakspeare would have ventured on so hazardous an experiment?" Yet always certain of his victory, always sure of producing whatever effect he desires to produce, he is indifferent to any waste or profusion of his powers. How, indeed, could there be waste where the wealth was inexhaustible ?

And as the theme of the poet extends to the furthest verge of human experience, and sounds all the surging depths of human consciousness, Shakspeare is equally master of the many moods and voices in which that consciousness expresses itself. He is draanatic as in Henry IV.,' or epic as in . Richard II.,' or lyric as in “Romeo and Juliet,"melodrainatic in. Titus Andronicus,' farcical in the Comedy of Errors,' subjective and philosophic in * Hamlet,' a master of scholastic logic in Pandulph, of rhetoric in Mark Antony, pastoral in Perdita, elegiac in Cymbeline.' His

songs are unapproachable; there is nothing like them, or near them in the whole range of English literature, abundant

as

as that literature is in this species of composition. And the beauty of these songs consists not merely in the sentiment or the exquisite adaptation of the expression, or their display of broad and obvious feelings, as opposed to those subtleties and metaphysical conceits of a later age, or in their musical structure

- all of which they have in perfection—but also in their appropriateness to place and occasion. As contrasted also with later lyrics, the impersonality of Shakspeare is as strictly preserved in his songs as in other parts of his dramatic writings.

It seems then absurd to suppose that such a poet wrote in vain for the nation—that he was not appreciated in his own day. Such insensibility would have been a national disgrace and misfortune-a proof that Shakspeare was not an Englishman, or bad materially failed in understanding his countrymen; the only race he did not understand. But, putting aside the praises of Ben Jonson and others, how stand the facts? The folio of 1623 was followed by the folio of 1632, and with it the sonnet in Shakspeare's praise by Milton. The poem entitled · Allegro' represents Shakspeare as the favourite, not merely of the Puritan poet, but as the general favourite of the stage. It is Milton that accuses Charles I. of making Shakspeare the companion of his solitary hours.

One hears again of the memorable Hales of Eton, of the accomplished Lord Falkland, of the favourite Cavalier poet Sir John Suckling, discussing at their social meetings the merits of Shakspeare as compared with the Greek dramatists. Of Selden, Chief Justice Vaughan, and Lord Falkland, this anecdote is preserved, that Shakespeare had not only found out a new character in his Caliban, but had also devised and adapted a new manner of language for that character.' *

For though Shakspeare is familiar with all forms of human experience-ranges at will through all the provinces of history -reinvests with life the most confused, apathetic, shrivelled traditions, and compels Time to disgorge his ravine;' be it Lear or Macbeth, Cæsar or Cymbeline, he is never antiquarian. The presentment of his characters is essentially English; their stage is the 16th century. This is the meaning of his anachro

* As Shakspeare was mentioned and studied by almost every poet and man of genius in succession from his own days until the Puritans for a time put a stop to dramatic representations, and refused to license dramatic writings, it is hard to say upon what grounds this supposed neglect of Shakspeare is founded. Jopson, Drayton, Suckling, Herrick, Milton, Dryden, Fuller, the wittiest of historians, and a host of others, are unimpeachable evidence of the uninterrupted popularity of Shakspeare: of no other poet can as much be said. Even Bacon, though he hated poets, and thought poetry was no better than vinum dæmonum, without mentioning Shakspeare by name, seems to allude to him in his 'Adv. of Learning, p. 83; whilst his essay on 'Deformity' is little else than an analysis of Shakspeare's ‘Richard III.

*

« PreviousContinue »