Page images
PDF
EPUB

nisms, the puzzle and the triumph of small critics. The whole range of past experience had been gathered up, not as broken remnants, to be pieced together by the laborious ingenuity of a learned mechanism-not to be flaunted in the eyes of readers and spectators as an ornament to be proud of—but fused and melted by the intense imaginations and lofty aspirations of the poet's times into the reach and limits of the present. The past appeared to the apprehension of that age as much related to itself, as much a part of the common humanity of Englishmen in the reign of Elizabeth, as the Armada itself, and the perilous rivalry of the two female sovereigns. To Ascham, Cicero and Demosthenes were not merely statesmen of all times, but of his own times especiallyas much as Burghley and Walsingham, or even more so. The whole

age

was dramatic to the core. In set speeches, in conversation, in grave state papers, the mythical and the legendary were mixed

up

with the historical and the present, as if all were alike real, and all intimately blended with one another. The vivid imaginations of men supplied the connecting links and brought the picture home to the mind, instead of setting it off at greater distance, as is the tendency of modern criticism to do. The common ground of all was the supposed humanity of all; varying, indeed, according to time, climate, circumstances, but in all essentials one and the same with themselves and those around them. And this habit of self-identification with past events and principles, with ancient races and parties, with the same zeal and vehemence as they infuse into current politics

, has ever been, as it was then, characteristic of Englishmen. If Shakspeare availed himself of this feeling, he did much to foster it. He is comparatively careless of the tiring-room of antiquity,-indifferent, like his age, to the niceties of archæological costume. Humanity is to him, wherever found, of all time, and equally at home to him in all its fashions; and though he never deals with abstractions, like Spenser, seldom idealizes like him, his realism rests on a broader basis than local manners, personal eccentricities, or historical minuteness. Whilst his Greeks, his Romans, his Italians, his ancient Britons, are true to their race, their country, and their times, and could never be transposed, as in other dramatists, without utter confusion to the whole meaning and conception of the poet, they are intelligible to us, because the poet makes us feel that, however remote they may be, they are of our own flesh and blood; of like passions, temptations, strength, and weakness. It may be said of his genius what Hamlet says of the ubiquity of his father's ghost, hic et ubique ; the ubique is never disjoined from the hic; however wide the rays of his poetical fiction

travel,

travel, they all converge in one point. Shakspeare is above all other men the Englishman of the 16th century.

Moreover, dramatic poetry, especially dramatic poetry of the Shakspearian drama, is the poetry of Englishmen: first, because it is the poetry of action and passion, woven out of the wear and tear of this busy world, rather than the poetry of reflection ; and, secondly, because it is peculiar to Englishmen not merely to tolerate all sides and all parties, but to let all sides and parties speak for themselves; and to like to hear them. It is part of the national love for fair play, part of its intense curiosity and thirst for seeing things and men from all points of view and in all aspects, of preferring to look at things as they are, even in their nakedness and weakness, to any theories, or notions, or systems about them. Not only is the drama most pregnant with this variety, but no drama is ever successful that neglects it. The fair play in Shakspeare is scarcely less remarkable than the infinite range of his characters. There is no absolute villanyno absolute heroism. He takes no sides; he never raises up successful evil inerely for the pleasure of knocking it down, and gaining cheap applause by commonplace declamations against it. He pronounces no judgment ; in most instances he commits his characters wholly to the judgment of the spectator. This judicial impartiality is another characteristic of the nation, that hates dogmatism in all shapes, in juries or in judges, in the pulpit or the senate.

In this respect Shakspeare, like Bacon, was guiding the topmost bent of the nation, and in one other especially :

"There is no art,' says Sir Philip Sidney, * • delivered unto mankind, that hath not the works of nature for his (its) principal object, without which they could not consist, and on which they so depend, as they become actors and players, as it were, of what nature will have set forth.

Only the poet disdaining to be tied to any subjection, lifted up with the vigour of his own invention, doth grow in effect into another nature; in making things either better than nature bringeth forth or quite anew; forms such as never were in nature, as the Heroes, Demigods, Cyclops, Chimæras, Furies, and such like; so as he goeth hand in hand with nature, not inclosed within the narrow warrant of her gifts, but freely ranging within the zodiac of his own wit. Nature never set forth the work in so rich tapestry as divers poets have done; neither with so pleasant rivers, fruitful trees, sweet smelling flowers, and whatsoever else may make the too much loved earth more lovely. Her world is brazen, the poet's only silver and golden.'

Then he proceeds to say, in language no less solemn, true, and beautiful, that, as the skill of every artificer is manifested in his idea,* «or præconceit of the work and not in the work itself,' so the greatest of all idealists is the poet and the poet only. Now as this grand claim, by no mean poet, for the heroical and transcendental in poetry, constitutes the ablest defence of such writers as Spenser, and the best apology for the popular approbation of the stilted drama of Marlowe and Kyd, it is also the best exponent of the feelings of men like Sidney; men of all others who loved, and fought, and died for Gloriana, and carried the nobility, generosity, chivalry of the old Romance into the commonest events of hodiernal life. But when Sidney fell at Zutphen, the last if not the brightest star in this galaxy of men fell with him—the old age of Elizabeth was pestered with the intrigues and selfish plots of noblemen and gentlemen ; the round table of Arthur was no more; the goodliest fellowship of famous knights' was all unsoldered. There was no one to exhibit in his own person the examples of that type so dear to Sidney and his contemporaries. Besides, the nation was settling down to the 17th century, and to those sterner questions which nothing but the grimmest realism could hope to understand and determine. The high but artificial standing of the earlier age could not hold out against the shock : would not, even if it had not degenerated with the Stuarts. Thus Shakspeare in his unheroism and in his realism was exhibiting to his contemporaries the growing tendency of his own age. The inflexible, almost cruel, impartiality with which he holds up to them the good and the evil, the weakness and the strength, of all men and all classes alike, the sure vengeance which overtakes misdirected but good intentions, equally as it overtakes crime, the Nemesis of extravagant affections, emotions, actions, passions, thoughts, expressions ;—the assertion of a law and order in all things, as inexorable as the Fate of the Greek dramatist—which none can break and escape punishment—the world as God made it and not as men's passions, partiality, righteousness or unrighteousness would have it—the sun and the rain for the unjust as well as the just-innocence foiled as well as guilt at the moment of its triumph-mirth turned into sorrow_laughter in the midst of tears-light chequered with darkness everywhere-wisdom defeated by folly—manhood corrupted by youthful dissipation-the comic hand in hand with the tragic; -the drunken porter and the murdered king—the convulsive fool

* 'Defence of Poesy.' Sidney died in 1586.

beautiful,

* So that charming pastoral

'Come, live with me and be my love,' with its transcendental images of .coral clasp and amber studs, describes what no one has ever realised in nature, but it has its existence as certain in the amorous imagination of the poet as the object to which it was addressed.

and

and the heart-broken father-earth gibbering whilst heaven is rent with 'sulphurous and thought-executing fires '-fools and wits, innocent and guilty, high and low, kings and pick pockets, the proud and the mean, the noble and ignoble--this is the warp and woof—the tangled web of good and evil composing what men call the world, and set forth by Shakspeare to his contemporaries. With so broad and varied a theme as thisso terrible, pathetic, ridiculous, vulgar, and sublime, the heroic of Sidney is incompatible. Rather it shrinks into nothing on the comparison; and the life of the imaginary is less full of wonders than of the ordinary hero of every day.

One more characteristic has to be noticed which stamps Shakspeare especially as an Englishman, and an Englishman of the reign of Elizabeth: and this is the prominence given by him to his female characters, their variety, and the important part assigned to them in his dramas. It has been said that, if Shakspeare paints no heroes, the women are heroines. If in Spenser the knights fail to accomplish those enterprises which are accomplished for them by the other sex; if Una and Britomart and Belphæbe are the guides and the advisers of their different champions ; if male courage is unsexed except it be regulated by purest devotion to women; in Shakspeare, Imogen, Hermione, and Desdemona stand forth in shining contrast to their faithless, wavering, and suspicious consorts. But in Spenser woman is little else than ideal; she is too good for human nature's daily food and daily infirmities. Shakspeare's women are strictly' real; their very infirmities, like the tears of Achilles, are not a foil, but an ornament to their perfections; their failings spring from the root of their virtues. The criticism which condemns Desdemona and Juliet is as monstrous as it is mistaken. The women in Shakspeare suffer as they suffer in the world and in real life, because, in following the true instincts of true nature, they fall sacrifices to the experience, the selfishness, the caprices of the stronger sex. If parents are careless and imperious like Brabantio, or impure and worldly like old Capulet and Polonius, Shakspeare saw too well that such muddy cisterns, hide their corruptions as they will, cannot prevent the subtle contagion of their own ill-doings from staining the pure fountains of their household. Youth pierces through their slimsy disguisings with a sharp and divine instinct wholly hidden from their purblind vision. With the exception of Lady Macbeth, there is no female character in Shakspeare which comes near the atrocities of lago or Richard III. The fierce natural affection of the injured Constance excuses her occasional excesses; the weakness of Ann, like the palpitating bird, is not proof against the basilisk-like power and fascination of Richard III. ; Miranda falls in love at first sight with a being she has dressed up in her own perfections; even Lady Macbeth has steeled her nature above that of her sex in admiration and devotion to her husband.

power

Look out upon the world, and the same is going on every day: woman complying with the law of her creation, and man transgressing his.

And as Shakspeare differs from previous dramatists in his conception and representation of the real, not the colourless ideal, of woman, he equally differs from Ben Jonson, from Beaumont and Fletcher, with their mere animal instincts and their coarser delineation of the

purpose
and destiny of woman.

Nor is it merely in the purity, refinement, and feminine grace of his female characters that the great dramatist so far surpasses his contemporaries ; for. The Virgin Martyr' of Massinger, and “The Faithful Shepherdess' of Fletcher, though rare and unusual, have something of the same excellence; but the woman's nature and instincts are never lost sight of by the poet. If faith, love, constancy, purity, are beautiful even in the abstract, they are more beautiful still in the concrete; and the hardness of the abstract is rounded off when they are presented to us not as fixed and isolated qualities or all-absorbing influences, but in the tenderness, weakness, and alternations of flesh and blood. The heroism of strength may delight the hero-worshipper; but the heroism of weakness is far more human and attractive. The faint resolve, springing forth as a tiny blade from unpromising ground—now seemingly contending unequally against the blast-now gaining unseen strength and vigour from the contest;—the moral purpose exposed to the storm of passion and the inveiglement of temptation ; like a frail craft at sea—now hidden by the wavesnow apparently foundering hopelessly—then rising to the storm -creating in the spectator the contending tumults of pity, hope, and fear-appealing to the strongest and inexhaustible sympathies in the hearts of men-these are the triumphs of the dramatic poet. And it is in this exhibition of mortal strength and weakness, whether in man or woman, that Shakspeare excels, even in his less complex characters; whilst in the impersonation of a character of more complex elements, such as Cleopatra, any comparison of the great master with any writer of fiction, in ancient or in modern times, would be altogether absurd. What must that imagination have been that could conceive, or that power which could so perfectly delineate, three such types of womankind as Juliet, Desdemona, and Cleopatra ? Whose but his, who, without losing his own personality, seeing with other men's eyes, and feeling with other men's feelings, understood the uni

« PreviousContinue »