All England knows that this year (1864) is the three hundredth since Shakspere was born. The strong probability is likewise that this month of April is that in which he first saw the earthly light. On the twenty-sixth of April he was baptized. Whether he was born on the twenty-third, to which effect there may once have been a tradition, we do not know; but though there is nothing to corroborate that statement, there are two facts which would incline us to believe it if we could: the one that he died on the twenty-third of April, thus, as it were, completing a cycle; and the other that the twenty-third of April is St. George's Day. If there is no harm in indulging in a little fanciful sentiment about such a grand fact, we should say that certainly it was St. George for merry England when Shakspere was born. But had St. George been the best saint in the calendar--which we have little enough ground for supposing he was--it would better suit our subject to say that the Highest was thinking of his England when he sent Shakspere into it, to be a strength, a wonder, and a gladness to the nations of his earth.
But if we write thus about Shakspere, influenced only by the fashion of the day, we shall be much in the condition of those fashionable architects who with their vain praises built the tombs of the prophets, while they had no regard to the lessons they taught. We hope to be able to show that we have good grounds for our rejoicing in the birth of that child whom after-years placed highest on the rocky steep of Art, up which so many of those who combine feeling and thought are always striving.
First, however, let us look at some of the more powerful of the influences into the midst of which he was born. For a child is born into the womb of the time, which indeed enclosed and fed him before he was born. Not the least subtle and potent of those influences which tend to the education of the child (in the true sense of the word education) are those which are brought to bear upon him through the mind, heart, judgement of his parents. We mean that those powers which have operated strongly upon them, have a certain concentrated operation, both antenatal and psychological, as well as educational and spiritual, upon the child. Now Shakspere was born in the sixth year of Queen Elizabeth. He was the eldest son, but the third child. His father and mother must have been married not later than the year 1557, two years after Cranmer was burned at the stake, one of the two hundred who thus perished in that time of pain, resulting in the firm establishment of a reformation which, like all other changes for the better, could not be verified and secured without some form or other of the trial by fire. Events such as then took place in every part of the country could not fail to make a strong impression upon all thinking people, especially as it was not those of high position only who were thus called upon to bear witness to their beliefs. John Shakspere and Mary Arden were in all likelihood themselves of the Protestant party; and although, as far as we know, they were never in any especial danger of being denounced, the whole of the circumstances must have tended to produce in them individually, what seems to have been characteristic of the age in which they lived, earnestness. In times such as those, people are compelled to think.
And here an interesting question occurs: Was it in part to his mother that Shakspere was indebted for that profound knowledge of the Bible which is so evident in his writings? A good many copies of the Scriptures must have been by this time, in one translation or another, scattered over the country. [Footnote: And it seems to us probable that this diffusion of the Bible, did more to rouse the slumbering literary power of England, than any influences of foreign literature whatever.] No doubt the word was precious in those days, and hard to buy; but there might have been a copy, notwithstanding, in the house of John Shakspere, and it is possible that it was from his mother's lips that the boy first heard the Scripture tales. We have called his acquaintance with Scripture profound, and one peculiar way in which it manifests itself will bear out the assertion; for frequently it is the very spirit and essential aroma of the passage that he reproduces, without making any use of the words themselves. There are passages in his writings which we could not have understood but for some acquaintance with the New Testament. We will produce a few specimens of the kind we mean, confining ourselves to one play, "Macbeth."
Just mentioning the phrase, "temple-haunting martlet" (act i. scene 6), as including in it a reference to the verse, "Yea, the sparrow hath found an house, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, even thine altars, O Lord of hosts," we pass to the following passage, for which we do not believe there is any explanation but that suggested to us by the passage of Scripture to be cited.
Macbeth, on his way to murder Duncan, says,--
"Thou sure and firm-set earth, Hear not my steps, which way they walk, for fear Thy very stones prate of my whereabout, And take the present horror from the time Which now suits with it."
What is meant by the last two lines? It seems to us to be just another form of the words, "For there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; neither hid, that shall not be known. Therefore whatsoever ye have spoken in darkness shall be heard in the light; and that which ye have spoken in the ear in closets shall be proclaimed upon the house-tops." Of course we do not mean that Macbeth is represented as having this passage in his mind, but that Shakspere had the feeling of it when he wrote thus. What Macbeth means is, "Earth, do not hear me in the dark, which is suitable to the present horror, lest the very stones prate about it in the daylight, which is not suitable to such things; thus taking 'the present horror from the time which now suits with it.'"
Again, in the only piece of humour in the play--if that should be called humour which, taken in its relation to the consciousness of the principal characters, is as terrible as anything in the piece--the porter ends off his fantastic soliloquy, in which he personates the porter of hell-gate, with the words, "But this place is too cold for hell: I'll devil-porter it no further. I had thought to have let in some of all professions, that go the primrose way to the everlasting bonfire." Now what else had the writer in his mind but the verse from the Sermon on the Mount, "For wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat"?
It may be objected that such passages as these, being of the most commonly quoted, imply no profound acquaintance with Scripture, such as we have said Shakspere possessed. But no amount of knowledge of the words of the Bible would be sufficient to justify the use of the word profound. What is remarkable in the employment of these passages, is not merely that they are so present to his mind that they come up for use in the most exciting moments of composition, but that he embodies the spirit of them in such a new form as reveals to minds saturated and deadened with the sound of the words, the very visual image and spiritual meaning involved in them. "_The primrose way!_" And to what?
We will confine ourselves to one passage more:--
Is ripe for shaking, and the powers above Put on their instruments."
In the end of the 14th chapter of the Revelation we have the words, "Thrust in thy sickle, and reap: for the time is come for thee to reap; for the harvest of the earth is ripe." We suspect that Shakspere wrote, ripe to shaking.
The instances to which we have confined ourselves do not by any means belong to the most evident kind of proof that might be adduced of Shakspere's acquaintance with Scripture. The subject, in its ordinary aspect, has been elsewhere treated with far more fulness than our design would permit us to indulge in, even if it had not been done already. Our object has been to bring forward a few passages which seem to us to breathe the very spirit of individual passages in sacred writ, without direct use of the words themselves; and, of course, in such a case we can only appeal to the (no doubt) very various degrees of conviction which they may rouse in the minds of our readers.
But there is one singular correspondence in another almost literal quotation from the Gospel, which is to us wonderfully interesting. We are told that the words "eye of a needle," in the passage about a rich man entering the kingdom of heaven, mean the small side entrance in a city gate. Now, in "Richard II," act v. scene 5, Richard quotes the passage thus:--
"It is as hard to come as for a camel To thread the postern of a needle's eye;"
showing that either the imagination of Shakspere suggested the real explanation, or he had taken pains to acquaint himself with the significance of the simile. We can hardly say that the correspondence might be merely fortuitous; because, at the least, Shakspere looked for and found a suitable figure to associate with the words eye of a needle, and so fell upon the real explanation; except, indeed, he had no particular significance in using the word that meant a little gate, instead of a word meaning any kind of entrance, which, with him, seems unlikely.
We have not by any means proven that Shakspere's acquaintance with the Scriptures had an early date in his history; but certainly the Bible must have had a great influence upon him who was the highest representative mind of the time, its influence on the general development of the nation being unquestionable. This, therefore, seeing the Bible itself was just dawning full upon the country while Shakspere was becoming capable of understanding it, seems the suitable sequence in which to take notice of that influence, and of some of those passages in his works which testify to it.
But, besides the Bible, every nation has a Bible, or at least an Old Testament, in its own history; and that Shakspere paid especial attention to this, is no matter of conjecture. We suspect his mode of writing historical plays is more after the fashion of the Bible histories than that of most writers of history. Indeed, the development and consequences of character and conduct are clear to those that read his histories with open eyes. Now, in his childhood Shakspere may have had some special incentive to the study of history springing out of the fact that his mother's grandfather had been "groom of the chamber to Henry VII.," while there is sufficient testimony that a further removed ancestor of his father, as well, had stood high in the favour of the same monarch. Therefore the history of the troublous times of the preceding century, which were brought to a close by the usurpation of Henry VII., would naturally be a subject of talk in the quiet household, where books and amusements such as now occupy our boys, were scarce or wanting altogether. The proximity of such a past of strife and commotion, crowded with eventful change, must have formed a background full of the material of excitement to an age which lived in the midst of a peculiarly exciting history of its own.
Perhaps the chief intellectual characteristic of the age of Elizabeth was activity; this activity accounting even for much that is objectionable in its literature. Now this activity must have been growing in the people throughout the fifteenth century; the wars of the Roses, although they stifled literature, so that it had, as it were, to be born again in the beginning of the following century, being, after all, but as the "eager strife" of the shadow-leaves above the "genuine life" of the grass,--
"And the mute repose
Of sweetly breathing flowers."
But when peace had fallen on the land, it would seem as if the impulse to action springing from strife still operated, as the waves will go on raving upon the shore after the wind has ceased, and found one outlet, amongst others, in literature, and peculiarly in dramatic literature. Peace, rendered yet more intense by the cessation of the cries of the tormentors, and the groans of the noble army of suffering martyrs, made, as it were, a kind of vacuum; and into that vacuum burst up the torrent-springs of a thousand souls--the thoughts that were no longer repressed--in the history of the past and the Utopian speculation on the future; in noble theology, capable statesmanship, and science at once brilliant and profound; in the voyage of discovery, and the change of the swan-like merchantman into a very fire-drake of war for the defence of the threatened shores; in the first brave speech of the Puritan in Elizabeth's Parliament, the first murmurs of the voice of liberty, soon to thunder throughout the land; in the naturalizing of foreign genius by translation, and the invention, or at least adoption, of a new and transcendent rhythm; in the song, in the epic, in the drama.
So much for the general. Let us now, following the course of his life, recall, in a few sentences, some of the chief events which must have impressed the all-open mind of Shakspere in the earlier portion of his history.
Perhaps it would not be going back too far to begin with the Massacre of Paris, which took place when he was eight years old. It caused so much horror in England, that it is not absurd to suppose that some black rays from the deed of darkness may have fallen on the mind of such a child as Shakspere.
In strong contrast with the foregoing is the next event to which we shall refer.
When he was eleven years old, Leicester gave the Queen that magnificent reception at Kenilworth which is so well known from its memorials in our literature. It has been suggested as probable, with quite enough of likelihood to justify a conjecture, that Shakspere may have been present at the dramatic representations then so gorgeously accumulated before her Majesty. If such was the fact, it is easy to imagine what an influence the shows must have had on the mind of the young dramatic genius, at a time when, happily, the critical faculty is not by any means so fully awake as are the receptive and exultant faculties, and when what the nature chiefly needs is excitement to growth, without which all pruning, the most artistic, is useless, as having nothing to operate upon.
When he was fifteen years old, Sir Thomas North's translation of Plutarch (through the French) was first published. Any reader who has compared one of Shakspere's Roman plays with the corresponding life in Plutarch, will not be surprised that we should mention this as one of those events which must have been of paramount influence upon Shakspere. It is not likely that he became acquainted with the large folio with its medallion portraits first placed singly, and then repeated side by side for comparison, as soon as it made its appearance, but as we cannot tell when he began to read it, it seems as well to place it in the order its publication would assign to it. Besides, it evidently took such a hold of the man, that it is most probable his acquaintance with it began at a very early period of his history. Indeed, it seems to us to have been one of the most powerful aids to the development of that perception and discrimination of character with which he was gifted to such a remarkable degree. Nor would it be any derogation from the originality of his genius to say, that in a very pregnant sense he must have been a disciple of Plutarch. In those plays founded on Plutarch's stories he picked out every dramatic point, and occasionally employed the very phrases of North's nervous, graphic, and characteristic English. He seems to have felt that it was an honour to his work to embody in it the words of Plutarch himself, as he knew them first. From him he seems especially to have learned how to bring out the points of a character, by putting one man over against another, and remarking wherein they resembled each other and wherein they differed; after which fashion, in other plays as well as those, he partly arranged his dramatic characters.
Not long after he went to London, when he was twenty-two, the death of Sir Philip Sidney at the age of thirty-two, must have had its unavoidable influence on him, seeing all Europe was in mourning for the death of its model, almost ideal man. In England the general mourning, both in the court and the city, which lasted for months, is supposed by Dr. Zouch to have been the first instance of the kind; that is, for the death of a private person. Renowned over the civilized world for everything for which a man could be renowned, his literary fame must have had a considerable share in the impression his death would make on such a man as Shakspere. For although none of his works were published till after his death, the first within a few months of that event, his fame as a writer was widely spread in private, and report of the same could hardly fail to reach one who, although he had probably no friends of rank as yet, kept such keen open ears for all that was going on around him. But whether or not he had heard of the literary greatness of Sir Philip before his death, the "Arcadia," which was first published four years after his death (1590), and which in eight years had reached the third edition--with another still in Scotland the following year--must have been full of interest to Shakspere. This book is very different indeed from the ordinary impression of it which most minds have received through the confident incapacity of the critics of last century. Few books have been published more fruitful in the results and causes of thought, more sparkling with fancy, more evidently the outcome of rich and noble habit, than this "Arcadia" of Philip Sidney. That Shakspere read it, is sufficiently evident from the fact that from it he has taken the secondary but still important plots in two of his plays.
Although we are anticipating, it is better to mention here another book, published in the same year, namely, 1590, when Shakspere was six-and-twenty: the first three books of Spenser's "Faery Queen." Of its reception and character it is needless here to say anything further than, of the latter, that nowadays the depths of its teaching, heartily prized as that was by no less a man than Milton, are seldom explored. But it would be a labour of months to set out the known and imagined sources of the knowledge and spiritual pabulum of the man who laid every mental region so under contribution, that he has been claimed by almost every profession as having been at one time or another a student of its peculiar science, so marvellously in him was the power of assimilation combined with that of reproduction.
To go back a little: in 1587, when he was three-and-twenty, Mary Queen of Scots was executed. In the following year came that mighty victory of England, and her allies the winds and the waters, over the towering pride of the Spanish Armada. Out from the coasts, like the birds from their cliffs to defend their young, flew the little navy, many of the vessels only able to carry a few guns; and fighting, fire-ships and tempest left this island,--
"This precious stone set in the silver sea,"
still a "blessed plot," with an accumulated obligation to liberty which can only be paid by helping others to be free; and when she utterly forgets which, her doom is sealed, as surely as that of the old empires which passed away in their self-indulgence and wickedness.
When Shakspere was about thirty-two, Sir Walter Raleigh published his glowing account of Guiana, which instantly provided the English mind with an earthly paradise or fairy-land. Raleigh himself seems to have been too full of his own reports for us to be able to suppose that he either invented or disbelieved them; especially when he represents the heavenly country to which, in expectation of his execution, he is looking forward, after the fashion of those regions of the wonderful West:--
"Then the blessed Paths wee'l travel, Strow'd with Rubies thick as gravel; Sealings of Diamonds, Saphire floors, High walls of Coral, and Pearly Bowers."
Such were some of the influences which widened the region of thought, and excited the productive power, in the minds of the time. After this period there were fewer of such in Shakspere's life; and if there had been more of them they would have been of less import as to their operation on a mind more fully formed and more capable of choosing its own influences. Let us now give a backward glance at the history of the art which Shakspere chose as the means of easing his own mind of that wealth which, like the gold and the silver, has a moth and rust of its own, except it be kept in use by being sent out for the good of our neighbours.
It was a mighty gain for the language and the people when, in the middle of the fourteenth century, by permission of the Pope, the miracle-plays, most probably hitherto represented in Norman-French, as Mr. Collier supposes, began to be represented in English. Most likely there had been dramatic representations of a sort from the very earliest period of the nation's history; for, to begin with the lowest form, at what time would there not, for the delight of listeners, have been the imitation of animal sounds, such as the drama of the conversation between an attacking poodle and a fiercely repellent puss? Through innumerable gradations of childhood would the art grow before it attained the first formal embodiment in such plays as those, so-called, of miracles, consisting just of Scripture stories, both canonical and apocryphal, dramatized after the rudest fashion. Regarded from the height which the art had reached two hundred and fifty years after, "how dwarfed a growth of cold and night" do these miracle-plays show themselves! But at a time when there was no printing, little preaching, and Latin prayers, we cannot help thinking that, grotesque and ill-imagined as they are, they must have been of unspeakable value for the instruction of a people whose spiritual digestion was not of a sort to be injured by the presence of a quite abnormal quantity of husk and saw-dust in their food. And occasionally we find verses of true poetic feeling, such as the following, in "The Fall of Man:"--
Deus. Adam, that with myn handys I made, Where art thou now? What hast thou wrought?
Adam. A! lord, for synne oure floures do ffade, I here thi voys, but I se the nought;
implying that the separation between God and man, although it had destroyed the beatific vision, was not yet so complete as to make the creature deaf to the voice of his Maker. Nor are the words of Eve, with which she begs her husband, in her shame and remorse, to strangle her, odd and quaint as they are, without an almost overpowering pathos:--
"Now stomble we on stalk and ston; My wyt awey is fro me gon:
Wrythe on to my necke bon
With, hardnesse of thin honde."
To this Adam commences his reply with the verses,--
"Wyff, thi wytt is not wurthe a rosche. Leve woman, turn thi thought."
And this portion of the general representation ends with these verses, spoken by Eve:--
"Alas! that ever we wrought this synne. Oure bodely sustenauns for to wynne, Ye must delve and I xal spynne,
In care to ledyn oure lyff."
In connexion with these plays, one of the contemplations most interesting to us is, the contrast between them and the places in which they were occasionally represented. For though the scaffolds on which they were shown were usually erected in market-places or churchyards, sometimes they rose in the great churches, and the plays were represented with the aid of ecclesiastics. Here, then, we have the rude beginnings of the dramatic art, in which the devil is the unfortunate buffoon, giving occasion to the most exuberant laughter of the people--here is this rude boyhood, if we may so say, of the one art, roofed in with the perfection of another, of architecture; a perfection which now we can only imitate at our best: below, the clumsy contrivance and the vulgar jest; above, the solemn heaven of uplifted arches, their mysterious glooms ringing with the delight of the multitude: the play of children enclosed in the heart of prayer aspiring in stone. But it was not by any means all laughter; and so much, nearer than architecture is the drama to the ordinary human heart, that we cannot help thinking these grotesque representations did far more to arouse the inward life and conscience of the people than all the glory into which the out-working spirit of the monks had compelled the stubborn stone to bourgeon and blossom.
But although, no doubt, there was some kind of growth going on in the drama even during the dreary fifteenth century, we must not suppose that it was by any regular and steady progression that it arrived at the grandeur of the Elizabethan perfection. It was rather as if a dry, knotty, uncouth, but vigorous plant suddenly opened out its inward life in a flower of surpassing splendour and loveliness. When the representation of real historical persons in the miracle-plays gave way before the introduction of unreal allegorical personages, and the miracle-play was almost driven from the stage by the "play of morals" as it was called, there was certainly no great advance made in dramatic representation. The chief advantage gained was room for more variety; while in some important respects these plays fell off from the merits of the preceding kind. Indeed, any attempt to teach morals allegorically must lack that vivifying fire of faith working in the poorest representations of a history which the people heartily believed and loved. Nor when we come to examine the favourite amusement of later royalty, do we find that the interludes brought forward in the pauses of the banquets of Henry VIII. have a claim to any refinement upon those old miracle-plays. They have gained in facility and wit; they have lost in poetry. They have lost pathos too, and have gathered grossness. In the comedies which soon appear, there is far more of fun than of art; and although the historical play had existed for some time, and the streams of learning from the inns of court had flowed in to swell that of the drama, it is not before the appearance of Shakspere that we find any whole of artistic or poetic value. And this brings us to another branch of the subject, of which it seems to us that the importance has never been duly acknowledged. We refer to the use, if not invention, of blank verse in England, and its application to the purposes of the drama. It seems to us that in any contemplation of Shakspere and his times, the consideration of these points ought not to be omitted.
We have in the present day one grand master of blank verse, the Poet Laureate. But where would he have been if Milton had not gone before him; or if the verse amidst which he works like an informing spirit had not existed at all? No doubt he might have invented it himself; but how different would the result have been from the verse which he will now leave behind him to lie side by side for comparison with that of the master of the epic! All thanks then to Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey! who, if, dying on the scaffold at the early age of thirty, he has left no poetry in itself of much value, yet so wrote that he refined the poetic usages of the language, and, above all, was the first who ever made blank verse in English. He used it in translating the second and fourth books of Virgil's "Aeneid." This translation he probably wrote not long before his execution, which took place in 1547, seventeen years before the birth of Shakspere. There are passages of excellence in the work, and very rarely does a verse quite fail. But, as might be expected, it is somewhat stiff, and, as it were, stunted in sound; partly from the fact that the lines are too much divided, where distinction would have been sufficient. It would have been strange, indeed, if he had at once made a free use of a rhythm which every boy-poet now thinks he can do what he pleases with, but of which only a few ever learn the real scope and capabilities. Besides, the difficulty was increased by the fact that the nearest approach to it in measure was the heroic couplet, so well known in our language, although scarce one who has used it has come up to the variousness of its modelling in the hands of Chaucer, with whose writings Surrey was of course familiar. But various as is its melody in Chaucer, the fact of there being always an anticipation of the perfecting of a rhyme at the end of the couplet would make one accustomed to heroic verse ready to introduce a rhythmical fall and kind of close at the end of every blank verse in trying to write that measure for the first time. Still, as we say, there is good verse in Surrey's translation. Take the following lines for a specimen, in which the fault just mentioned is scarcely perceptible. Mercury is the subject of them.
"His golden wings he knits, which him transport, With a light wind above the earth and seas; And then with him his wand he took, whereby
He calls from hell pale ghosts.
* * * * *
"By power whereof he drives the winds away,
And passeth eke amid the troubled clouds,
Till in his flight he 'gan descry the top
And the steep flanks of rocky Atlas' hill
That with his crown sustains the welkin up; Whose head, forgrown with pine, circled alway With misty clouds, is beaten with wind and storm; His shoulders spread with snow; and from his chin The springs descend; his beard frozen with ice. Here Mercury with equal shining wings First touched."
In all comparative criticism justice demands that he who began any mode should not be compared with those who follow only on the ground of absolute merit in the productions themselves; for while he may be inferior in regard to quality, he stands on a height, as the inventor, to which they, as imitators, can never ascend, although they may climb other and loftier heights, through the example he has set them. It is doubtful, however, whether Surrey himself invented this verse, or only followed the lead of some poet of Italy or Spain; in both which countries it is said that blank verse had been used before Surrey wrote English in that measure.
Here then we have the low beginnings of blank verse. It was nearly a hundred and twenty years before Milton took it up, and, while it served him well, glorified it; nor are we aware of any poem of worth written in that measure between. Here, of course, we speak of the epic form of the verse, which, as being uttered ore rotundo, is necessarily of considerable difference from the form it assumes in the drama.
Let us now glance for a moment at the forms of composition in use for dramatic purposes before blank verse came into favour with play-writers. The nature of the verse employed in the miracle-plays will be sufficiently seen from the short specimens already given. These plays were made up of carefully measured and varied lines, with correct and superabundant rhymes, and no marked lack of melody or rhythm. But as far as we have made acquaintance with the moral and other rhymed plays which followed, there was a great falling off in these respects. They are in great measure composed of long, irregular lines, with a kind of rhythmical progress rather than rhythm in them. They are exceedingly difficult to read musically, at least to one of our day. Here are a few verses of the sort, from the dramatic poem, rather than drama, called somewhat improperly "The Moral Play of God's Promises," by John Bale, who died the year before Shakspere was born. It is the first in Dodsley's collection. The verses have some poetic merit. The rhythm will be allowed to be difficult at least. The verses are arranged in stanzas, of which we give two. In most plays the verses are arranged in rhyming couplets only.
I have with fearcenesse mankynde oft tymes corrected, And agayne, I have allured hym by swete promes. I have sent sore plages, when he hath me neglected, And then by and by, most comfortable swetnes. To wynne hym to grace, bothe mercye and ryghteousnes I have exercysed, yet wyll he not amende. Shall I now lose hym, or shall I him defende?
In hys most myschefe, most hygh grace will I sende, To overcome hym by favoure, if it may be. With hys abusyons no longar wyll I contende, But now accomplysh my first wyll and decre. My worde beynge flesh, from hens shall set hym fre, Hym teachynge a waye of perfyght ryhteousnesse, That he shall not nede to perysh in hys weaknesse.
To our ears, at least, the older miracle-plays were greatly superior. It is interesting to find, however, in this apparently popular mode of "building the rhyme"--certainly not the lofty rhyme, for no such crumbling foundation could carry any height of superstructure--the elements of the most popular rhythm of the present day; a rhythm admitting of any number of syllables in the line, from four up to twelve, or even more, and demanding only that there shall be not more than four accented syllables in the line. A song written with any spirit in this measure has, other things not being quite equal, yet almost a certainty of becoming more popular than one written in any other measure. Most of Barry Cornwall's and Mrs. Heman's songs are written in it. Scott's "Lay of the Last Minstrel," Coleridge's "Christabel," Byron's "Siege of Corinth," Shelley's "Sensitive Plant," are examples of the rhythm. Spenser is the first who has made good use of it. One of the months in the "Shepherd's Calendar" is composed in it. We quote a few lines from this poem, to show at once the kind we mean:--
"No marvel, Thenot, if thou can bear Cheerfully the winter's wrathful cheer; For age and winter accord full nigh; This chill, that cold; this crooked, that wry; And as the lowering weather looks down, So seemest thou like Good Friday to frown: But my flowering youth is foe to frost; My ship unwont in storms to be tost."
We can trace it slightly in Sir Thomas Wyatt, and we think in others who preceded Spenser. There is no sign of it in Chaucer. But we judge it to be the essential rhythm of Anglo-Saxon poetry, which will quite harmonize with, if it cannot explain, the fact of its being the most popular measure still. Shakspere makes a little use of it in one, if not in more, of his plays, though it there partakes of the irregular character of that of the older plays which he is imitating. But we suspect the clowns of the authorship of some of the rhymes, "speaking more than was set down for them," evidently no uncommon offence.
Prose was likewise in use for the drama at an early period.
But we must now regard the application of blank verse to the use of the drama. And in this part of our subject we owe most to the investigations of Mr. Collier, than whom no one has done more to merit our gratitude for such aids. It is universally acknowledged that "Ferrex and Porrex" was the first drama in blank verse. But it was never represented on the public stage. It was the joint production of Thomas Sackville, afterwards Lord Buckhurst and Earl of Dorset, and Thomas Norton, both gentlemen of the Inner Temple, by the members of which it was played before the Queen at Whitehall in 1561, three years before Shakspere was born. As to its merits, the impression left by it upon our minds is such that, although the verse is decent, and in some respects irreproachable, we think the time spent in reading it must be all but lost to any but those who must verify to themselves their literary profession; a profession which, like all other professions, involves a good deal of disagreeable duty. We spare our readers all quotation, there being no occasion to show what blank verse of the commonest description is. But we beg to be allowed to state that this drama by no means represents the poetic powers of Thomas Sackville. For although we cannot agree with Hallam's general criticism, either for or against Sackville, and although we admire Spenser, we hope, as much as that writer could have admired him, we yet venture to say that not only may some of Sackville's personifications "fairly be compared with some of the most poetical passages in Spenser," but that there is in this kind in Sackville a strength and simplicity of representation which surpasses that of Spenser in passages in which the latter probably imitated the former. We refer to the allegorical personages in Sackville's "Induction to the Mirrour of Magistrates," and in Spenser's description of the "House of Pride."
Mr. Collier judges that the play in blank verse first represented on the public stage was the "Tamburlaine" of Christopher Marlowe, and that it was acted before 1587, at which date Shakspere would be twenty-three. This was followed by other and better plays by the same author. Although we cannot say much for the dramatic art of Marlowe, he has far surpassed every one that went before him in dramatic poetry. The passages that might worthily be quoted from Marlowe's writings for the sake of their poetry are innumerable, notwithstanding that there are many others which occupy a border land between poetry and bombast, and are such that it is to us impossible to say to which class they rather belong. Of course it is easy for a critic to gain the credit of common-sense at the same time that he saves himself the trouble of doing what he too frequently shows himself incapable of doing to any good purpose--we mean thinking--by classing all such passages together as bombastical nonsense; but even in the matter of poetry and bombast, a wise reader will recognize that extremes so entirely meet, without being in the least identical, that they are capable of a sort of chemico-literary admixture, if not of combination. Goethe himself need not have been ashamed to have written one or two of the scenes in Marlowe's "Faust;" not that we mean to imply that they in the least resemble Goethe's handiwork. His verse is, for dramatic purposes, far inferior to Shakspere's; but it was a great matter for Shakspere that Marlowe preceded him, and helped to prepare to his hand the tools and fashions he needed. The provision of blank verse for Shakspere's use seems to us worthy of being called providential, even in a system in which we cannot believe that there is any chance. For as the stage itself is elevated a few feet above the ordinary level, because it is the scene of a representation, just so the speech of the drama, dealing not with unreal but with ideal persons, the fool being a worthy fool, and the villain a worthy villain, needs to be elevated some tones above that of ordinary life, which is generally flavoured with so much of the commonplace. Now the commonplace has no place at all in the drama of Shakspere, which fact at once elevates it above the tone of ordinary life. And so the mode of the speech must be elevated as well; therefore from prose into blank verse. If we go beyond this, we cease to be natural for the stage as well as life; and the result is that kind of composition well enough known in Shakspere's time, which he ridicules in the recitations of the player in "Hamlet," about Priam and Hecuba. We could show the very passages of the play-writer Nash which Shakspere imitates in these. To use another figure, Shakspere, in the same play, instructs the players "to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature." Now every one must have felt that somehow there is a difference between the appearance of any object or group of objects immediately presented to the eye, and the appearance of the same object or objects in a mirror. Nature herself is not the same in the mirror held up to her. Everything changes sides in this representation; and the room which is an ordinary, well-known, homely room, gains something of the strange and poetic when regarded in the mirror over the fire. Now for this representation, for this mirror-reflection on the stage, blank verse is just the suitable glass to receive the silvering of the genius-mind behind it.
But if Shakspere had had to sit down and make his tools first, and then quarry his stone and fell his timber for the building of his house, instead of finding everything ready to his hand for dressing his stone already hewn, for sawing and carving the timber already in logs and planks beside him, no doubt his house would have been built; but can we with any reason suppose that it would have proved such "a lordly pleasure-house"? Not even Shakspere could do without his poor little brothers who preceded him, and, like the goblins and gnomes of the drama, got everything out of the bowels of the dark earth, ready for the master, whom it would have been a shame to see working in the gloom and the dust instead of in the open eye of the day. Nor is anything so helpful to the true development of power as the possibility of free action for as much of the power as is already operative. This room for free action was provided by blank verse.
Yet when Shakspere came first upon the scene of dramatic labour, he had to serve his private apprenticeship, to which the apprenticeship of the age in the drama, had led up. He had to act first of all. Driven to London and the drama by an irresistible impulse, when the choice of some profession was necessary to make him independent of his father, seeing he was himself, though very young, a married man, the first form in which the impulse to the drama would naturally show itself in him would be the desire to act; for the outside relations would first operate. As to the degree of merit he possessed as an actor we have but scanty means of judging; for afterwards, in his own plays, he never took the best characters, having written them for his friend Richard Burbage. Possibly the dramatic impulse was sufficiently appeased by the writing of the play, and he desired no further satisfaction from personal representation; although the amount of study spent upon the higher department of the art might have been more than sufficient to render him unrivalled as well in the presentation of his own conceptions. But the dramatic spring, having once broken the upper surface, would scoop out a deeper and deeper well for itself to play in, and the actor would soon begin to work upon the parts he had himself to study for presentation. It being found that he greatly bettered his own parts, those of others would be submitted to him, and at length whole plays committed to his revision, of which kind there may be several in the collection of his works. If the feather-end of his pen is just traceable in "Titus Andronicus," the point of it is much more evident, and to as good purpose as Beaumont or Fletcher could have used his to, at the best, in "Pericles, Prince of Tyre." Nor would it be long before he would submit one of his own plays for approbation; and then the whole of his dramatic career lies open before him, with every possible advantage for perfecting the work, for the undertaking of which he was better qualified by nature than probably any other man whosoever; for he knew everything about acting, practically--about the play-house and its capabilities, about stage necessities, about the personal endowments and individual qualifications of each of the company--so that, when he was writing a play, he could distribute the parts before they even appeared upon paper, and write for each actor with the very living form of the ideal person present "in his mind's eye," and often to his bodily sight; so that the actual came in aid of the ideal, as it always does if the ideal be genuine, and the loftiest conceptions proved the truest to visible nature.
This close relation of Shakspere to the actual leads us to a general and remarkable fact, which again will lead us back to Shakspere. All the great writers of Queen Elizabeth's time were men of affairs; they were not literary men merely, in the general acceptation of the word at present. Hooker was a hard-working, sheep-keeping, cradle-rocking pastor of a country parish. Bacon's legal duties were innumerable before he became Lord Keeper and Lord Chancellor. Raleigh was soldier, sailor, adventurer, courtier, politician, discoverer: indeed, it is to his imprisonment that we are indebted for much the most ambitious of his literary undertakings, "The History of the World," a work which for simple majesty of subject and style is hardly to be surpassed in prose. Sidney, at the age of three-and-twenty, received the highest praise for the management of a secret embassy to the Emperor of Germany; took the deepest and most active interest in the political affairs of his country; would have sailed with Sir Francis Drake for South American discovery; and might probably have been king of poor Poland, if the queen had not been too selfish or wise to spare him. The whole of his literary productions was the work of his spare hours. Spenser himself, who was, except Shakspere, the most purely a literary man of them all, was at one time Secretary to the Lord Deputy of Ireland, and, later in life, Sheriff of Cork. Nor is the remark true only of the writers of Elizabeth's period, or of the country of England.
It seems to us one of the greatest advantages that can befall a poet, to be drawn out of his study, and still more out of the chamber of imagery in his own thoughts, to behold and speculate upon the embodiment of Divine thoughts and purposes in men and their affairs around him. Now Shakspere had no public appointment, but he reaped all the advantage which such could have given him, and more, from the perfection of his dramatic position. It was not with making plays alone that he had to do; but, himself an actor, himself in a great measure the owner of more than one theatre, with a little realm far more difficult to rule than many a kingdom--a company, namely, of actors--although possibly less difficult from the fact that they were only men and boys; with the pecuniary affairs of the management likewise under his supervision--he must have found, in the relations and necessities of his own profession, not merely enough of the actual to keep him real in his representations, but almost sufficient opportunity for his one great study, that of mankind, independently of social and friendly relations, which in his case were of the widest and deepest.
But Shakspere had not business relations merely: he was a man of business. There is a common blunder manifested, both in theory on the one side, and in practice on the other, which the life of Shakspere sets full in the light. The theory is, that genius is a sort of abnormal development of the imagination, to the detriment and loss of the practical powers, and that a genius is therefore a kind of incapable, incompetent being, as far as worldly matters are concerned. The most complete refutation of this notion lies in the fact that the greatest genius the world has known was a successful man in common affairs. While his genius grew in strength, fervour, and executive power, his worldly condition rose as well; he became a man of importance in the eyes of his townspeople, by whom he would not have been honoured if he had not made money; and he purchased landed property in his native place with the results of his management of his theatres.
The practical blunder lies in the notion cherished occasionally by young people ambitious of literary distinction, that in the pursuit of such things they must be content with the poverty to which the world dooms its greatest men; accepting their very poverty as an additional proof of their own genius. If this means that the poet is not to make money his object, it means well: no man should. But if it means either that the world is unkind, or that the poet is not to "gather up the fragments, that nothing be lost," it means ill. Shakspere did not make haste to be rich. He neither blamed, courted, nor neglected the world: he was friendly with it. He could not have pinched and scraped; but neither did he waste or neglect his worldly substance, which is God's gift too. Many immense fortunes have been made, not by absolute dishonesty, but in ways to which a man of genius ought to be yet more ashamed than another to condescend; but it does not therefore follow that if a man of genius will do honest work he will not make a fair livelihood by it, which for all good results of intellect and heart is better than a great fortune. But then Shakspere began with doing what he could. He did not consent to starve until the world should recognize his genius, or grumble against the blindness of the nation in not seeing what it was impossible it should see before it was fairly set forth. He began at once to supply something which the world wanted; for it wants many an honest thing. He went on the stage and acted, and so gained power to reveal the genius which he possessed; and the world, in its possible measure, was not slow to recognize it. Many a young fellow who has entered life with the one ambition of being a poet, has failed because he did not perceive that it is better to be a man than to be a poet, that it is his first duty to get an honest living by doing some honest work that he can do, and for which there is a demand, although it may not be the most pleasant employment. Time would have shown whether he was meant to be a poet or not; and if he had been no poet he would have been no beggar; and if he had turned out a poet, it would have been partly in virtue of that experience of life and truth, gained in his case in the struggle for bread, without which, gained somehow, a man may be a sweet dreamer, but can be no strong maker, no poet. In a word, here is the Englishman of genius, beginning life with nothing, and dying, not rich, but easy and honoured; and this by doing what no one else could do, writing dramas in which the outward grandeur or beauty is but an exponent of the inward worth; hiding pearls for the wise even within the jewelled play of the variegated bubbles of fancy, which he blew while he wrought, for the innocent delight of his thoughtless brothers and sisters. Wherever the rainbow of Shakspere's genius stands, there lies, indeed, at the foot of its glorious arch, a golden key, which will open the secret doors of truth, and admit the humble seeker into the presence of Wisdom, who, having cried in the streets in vain, sits at home and waits for him who will come to find her. And Shakspere had cakes and ale, although he was virtuous.
But what do we know about the character of Shakspere? How can we tell the inner life of a man who has uttered himself in dramas, in which of course it is impossible that he should ever speak in his own person? No doubt he may speak his own sentiments through the mouths of many of his persons; but how are we to know in what cases he does so?--At least we may assert, as a self-evident negative, that a passage treating of a wide question put into the mouth of a person despised and rebuked by the best characters in the play, is not likely to contain any cautiously formed and cherished opinion of the dramatist. At first sight this may seem almost a truism; but we have only to remind our readers that one of the passages oftenest quoted with admiration, and indeed separately printed and illuminated, is "The Seven Ages of Man," a passage full of inhuman contempt for humanity and unbelief in its destiny, in which not one of the seven ages is allowed to pass over its poor sad stage without a sneer; and that this passage is given by Shakspere to the blasé sensualist Jaques in "As You Like it," a man who, the good and wise Duke says, has been as vile as it is possible for man to be, so vile that it would be an additional sin in him to rebuke sin; a man who never was capable of seeing what is good in any man, and hates men's vices because he hates themselves, seeing in them only the reflex of his own disgust. Shakspere knew better than to say that all the world is a stage, and all the men and women merely players. He had been a player himself, but only on the stage: Jaques had been a player where he ought to have been a true man. The whole of his account of human life is contradicted and exposed at once by the entrance, the very moment when he has finished his wicked burlesque, of Orlando, the young master, carrying Adam, the old servant, upon his back. The song that immediately follows, sings true: "Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly." But between the all of Jaques and the most of the song, there is just the difference between earth and hell.--Of course, both from a literary and dramatic point of view, "The Seven Ages" is perfect.
Now let us make one positive statement to balance the other: that wherever we find, in the mouth of a noble character, not stock sentiments of stage virtue, but appreciation of a truth which it needs deep thought and experience united with love of truth, to discover or verify for one's self, especially if the truth be of a sort which most men will fail not merely to recognize as a truth, but to understand at all, because the understanding of it depends on the foregoing spiritual perception--then we think we may receive the passage as an expression of the inner soul of the writer. He must have seen it before he could have said it; and to see such a truth is to love it; or rather, love of truth in the general must have preceded and enabled to the discovery of it. Such a passage is the speech of the Duke, opening the second act of the play just referred to, "As You Like it." The lesson it contains is, that the well-being of a man cannot be secured except he partakes of the ills of life, "the penalty of Adam." And it seems to us strange that the excellent editors of the Cambridge edition, now in the course of publication--a great boon to all students of Shakspere--should not have perceived that the original reading, that of the folios, is the right one,--
"Here feel we not the penalty of Adam?"
which, with the point of interrogation supplied, furnishes the true meaning of the whole passage; namely, that the penalty of Adam is just what makes the "wood more free from peril than the envious court," teaching each "not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think."
But Shakspere, although everywhere felt, is nowhere seen in his plays. He is too true an artist to show his own face from behind the play of life with which he fills his stage. What we can find of him there we must find by regarding the whole, and allowing the spiritual essence of the whole to find its way to our brain, and thence to our heart. The student of Shakspere becomes imbued with the idea of his character. It exhales from his writings. And when we have found the main drift of any play--the grand rounding of the whole--then by that we may interpret individual passages. It is alone in their relation to the whole that we can do them full justice, and in their relation to the whole that we discover the mind of the master.
But we have another source of more direct enlightenment as to Shakspere himself. We only say more direct, not more certain or extended enlightenment. We have one collection of poems in which he speaks in his own person and of himself. Of course we refer to his sonnets. Though these occupy, with their presentation of himself, such a small relative space, they yet admirably round and complete, to our eyes, the circle of his individuality. In them and the plays the common saying--one of the truest--that extremes meet, is verified. No man is complete in whom there are no extremes, or in whom those extremes do not meet. Now the very individuality of Shakspere, judged by his dramas alone, has been declared nonexistent; while in the sonnets he manifests some of the deepest phases of a healthy self-consciousness. We do not intend to enter into the still unsettled question as to whether these sonnets were addressed to a man or a woman. We have scarcely a doubt left on the question ourselves, as will be seen from the argument we found on our conviction. We cannot say we feel much interest in the other question, If a man, what man? A few placed at the end, arranged as they have come down to us, are beyond doubt addressed to a woman. But the difference in tone between these and the others we think very remarkable. Possibly at the time they were written--most of them early in his life, as it appears to us, although they were not published till the year 1609, when he was forty-five years of age, Meres referring to them in the year 1598, eleven years before, as known "among his private friends"--he had not known such women as he knew afterwards, and hence the true devotion of his soul is given to a friend of his own sex. Gervinus, whose lectures on Shakspere, profound and lofty to a degree unattempted by any other interpreter, we are glad to find have been done into a suitable English translation, under the superintendence of the author himself--Gervinus says somewhere in them that, as Shakspere lived and wrote, his ideal of womanhood grew nobler and purer. Certainly the woman to whom the last few of these sonnets are addressed was neither noble nor pure. We think, in this matter at least, they record one of his early experiences.
We shall briefly indicate what we find in these sonnets about the man himself, and shall commence with what is least pleasing and of least value.
We must confess, then, that, probably soon after he came first to London, he, then a married man, had an intrigue with a married woman, of which there are indications that he was afterwards deeply ashamed. One little incident seems curiously traceable: that he had given her a set of tablets which his friend had given him; and the sonnet in which he excuses himself to his friend for having done so, seems to us the only piece of special pleading, and therefore ungenuine expression, in the whole. This friend, to whom the rest of the sonnets are addressed, made the acquaintance of this woman, and both were false to Shakspere. Even Shakspere could not keep the love of a worthless woman. So much the better for him; but it is a sad story at best. Yet even in this environment of evil we see the nobility of the man, and his real self. The sonnets in which he mourns his friend's falsehood, forgives him, and even finds excuses for him, that he may not lose his own love of him, are, to our minds, amongst the most beautiful, as they are the most profound. Of these are the 33rd and 34th. Nor does he stop here, but proceeds in the following, the 35th, to comfort his friend in his grief for his offence, even accusing himself of offence in having made more excuse for his fault than the fault needed! But to leave this part of his history, which, as far as we know, stands alone, and yet cannot with truth be passed by, any more than the story of the crime of David, though in this case there is no comparison to be made between the two further than the primary fact, let us look at the one reality which, from a spiritual point of view, independently of the literary beauties of these poems, causes them to stand all but alone in literature. We mean what has been unavoidably touched upon already, the devotion of his friendship. We have said this makes the poems stand all but alone; for we ought to be better able to understand these poems of Shakspere, from the fact that in our day has appeared the only other poem which is like these, and which casts back a light upon them.
"Yet turn thee to the doubtful shore, Where thy first form was made a man: I loved thee, spirit, and love; nor can The soul of Shakspeare love thee more."
So sings the Poet of our day, in the loftiest of his poems--"In Memoriam"--addressing the spirit of his vanished friend. In the midst of his song arises the thought of the Poet of all time, who loved his friend too, and would have lost him in a way far worse than death, had not his love been too strong even for that death, alone ghastly, which threatened to cut the golden chain that bound them, and part them by the gulf impassable. Tennyson's friend had never wronged him; and to the divineness of Shakspere's love is added that of forgiveness. Such love as this between man and man is rare, and therefore to the mind which is in itself no way rare, incredible, because unintelligible. But though all the commonest things are very divine, yet divine individuality is and will be a rare thing at any given period on the earth. Faith, in its ideal sense, will always be hard to find on the earth. But perhaps this kind of affection between man and man may, as Coleridge indicates in his "Table Talk," have been more common in the reigns of Elizabeth and James than it is now. There is a certain dread of the demonstrative in the present day, which may, perhaps, be carried into regions where it is out of place, and hinder the development of a devotion which must be real, and grand, and divine, if one man such as Shakspere or Tennyson has ever felt it. If one has felt it, humanity may claim it. And surely He who is the Son of man has verified the claim. We believe there are indeed few of us who know what to love our neighbour as ourselves means; but when we find a man here and there in the course of centuries who does, we may take this man as the prophet of coming good for his race, his prophecy being himself.
But next to the interest of knowing that a man could love so well, comes the association of this fact with his art. He who could look abroad upon men, and understand them all--who stood, as it were, in the wide-open gates of his palace, and admitted with welcome every one who came in sight--had in the inner places of that palace one chamber in which he met his friend, and in which his whole soul went forth to understand the soul of his friend. The man to whom nothing in humanity was common or unclean; in whom the most remarkable of his artistic morals is fair-play; who fills our hearts with a saintly love for Cordelia and an admiration of Sir John Falstaff the lost gentleman, mournful even in the height of our laughter; who could make an Autolycus and a Macbeth both human, and an Ariel and a Puck neither human--this is the man who loved best. And we believe that this depth of capacity for loving lay at the root of all his knowledge of men and women, and all his dramatic pre-eminence. The heart is more intelligent than the intellect. Well says the poet Matthew Raydon, who has hardly left anything behind him but the lamentation over Sir Philip Sidney in which the lines occur,--
"He that hath love and judgment too Sees more than any other do."
Simply, we believe that this, not this only, but this more than any other endowment, made Shakspere the artist he was, in providing him all the material of humanity to work upon, and keeping him to the true spirit of its use. Love looking forth upon strife, understood it all. Love is the true revealer of secrets, because it makes one with the object regarded.
"But," say some impatient readers, "when shall we have done with Shakspere? There is no end to this writing about him." It will be a bad day for England when we have done with Shakspere; for that will imply, along with the loss of him, that we are no longer capable of understanding him. Should that time ever come, Heaven grant the generation which does not understand him at least the grace to keep its pens off him, which will by no means follow as a necessary consequence of the non-intelligence! But the writing about Shakspere which has been hitherto so plentiful must do good just in proportion as it directs attention to him and gives aid to the understanding of him. And while the utterances of to-day pass away, the children of to-morrow are born, and require a new utterance for their fresh need from those who, having gone before, have already tasted life and Shakspere, and can give some little help to further progress than their own, by telling the following generation what they have found. Suppose that this cry had been raised last century, after good Dr. Johnson had ceased to produce to the eyes of men the facts about his own incapacity which he presumed to be criticisms of Shakspere, where would our aids be now to the understanding of the dramatist? Our own conviction is, when we reflect with how much labour we have deepened our knowledge of him, and thereby found in him the best--for the best lies not on the surface for the careless reader--our own conviction is, that not half has been done that ought to be done to help young people at least to understand the master mind of their country. Few among them can ever give the attention or work to it that we have given; but much may be done with judicious aid. And a profound knowledge of their greatest writer would do more than almost anything else to bind together as Englishmen, in a true and unselfish way, the hearts of the coming generations; for his works are our country in a convex magic mirror.
When a man finds that every time he reads a book not only does some obscurity melt away, but deeper depths, which he had not before seen, dawn upon him, he is not likely to think that the time for ceasing to write about the book has come. And certainly in Shakspere, as in all true artistic work, as in nature herself, the depths are not to be revealed utterly; while every new generation needs a new aid towards discovering itself and its own thoughts in these forms of the past. And of all that read about Shakspere there are few whom more than one or two utterances have reached. The speech or the writing must go forth to find the soil for the growth of its kernel of truth. We shall, therefore, with the full consciousness that perhaps more has been already said and written about Shakspere than about any other writer, yet venture to add to the mass by a few general remarks.
And first we would remind our readers of the marvel of the combination in Shakspere of such a high degree of two faculties, one of which is generally altogether inferior to the other: the faculties of reception and production. Rarely do we find that great receptive power, brought into operation either by reading or by observation, is combined with originality of thought. Some hungers are quite satisfied by taking in what others have thought and felt and done. By the assimilation of this food many minds grow and prosper; but other minds feed far more upon what rises from their own depths; in the answers they are compelled to provide to the questions that come unsought; in the theories they cannot help constructing for the inclusion in one whole of the various facts around them, which seem at first sight to strive with each other like the atoms of a chaos; in the examination of those impulses of hidden origin which at one time indicate a height of being far above the thinker's present condition, at another a gulf of evil into which he may possibly fall. But in Shakspere the two powers of beholding and originating meet like the rejoining halves of a sphere. A man who thinks his own thoughts much, will often walk through London streets and see nothing. In the man who observes only, every passing object mirrors itself in its prominent peculiarities, having a kind of harmony with all the rest, but arouses no magician from the inner chamber to charm and chain its image to his purpose. In Shakspere, on the contrary, every outer form of humanity and nature spoke to that ever-moving, self-vindicating--we had almost said, and in a sense it would be true, self-generating--humanity within him. The sound of any action without him, struck in him just the chord which, in motion in him, would have produced a similar action. When anything was done, he felt as if he were doing it--perception and origination conjoining in one consciousness.
But to this gift was united the gift of utterance, or representation. Many a man both receives and generates who, somehow, cannot represent. Nothing is more disappointing sometimes than our first experience of the artistic attempts of a man who has roused our expectations by a social display of familiarity with, and command over, the subjects of conversation. Have we not sometimes found that when such a one sought to give vital or artistic form to these thoughts, so that they might not be born and die in the same moment upon his lips, but might exist, a poor, weak, faded simulacrum alone was the result? Now Shakspere was a great talker, who enraptured the listeners, and was himself so rapt in his speech that he could scarcely come to a close; but when he was alone with his art, then and then only did he rise to the height of his great argument, and all the talk was but as the fallen mortar and stony chips lying about the walls of the great temple of his drama.
But, along with all this wealth of artistic speech, an artistic virtue of an opposite nature becomes remarkable: his reticence. How often might he not say fine things, particularly poetic things, when he does not, because it would not suit the character or the time! How many delicate points are there not in his plays which we only discover after many readings, because he will not put a single tone of success into the flow of natural utterance, to draw our attention to the triumph of the author, and jar with the all-important reality of his production! Wherever an author obtrudes his own self-importance, an unreality is the consequence, of a nature similar to that which we feel in the old moral plays, when historical and allegorical personages, such as Julius Caesar and Charity, for instance, are introduced at the same time on the same stage, acting in the same story. Shakspere never points to any stroke of his own wit or art. We may find it or not: there it is, and no matter if no one see it!
Much has been disputed about the degree of consciousness of his own art possessed by Shakspere: whether he did it by a grand yet blind impulse, or whether he knew what he wanted to do, and knowingly used the means to arrive at that end. Now we cannot here enter upon the question; but we would recommend any of our readers who are interested in it not to attempt to make up their minds upon it before considering a passage in another of his poems, which may throw some light on the subject for them. It is the description of a painting, contained in "The Rape of Lucrece," towards the end of the poem. Its very minuteness involves the expression of principles, and reveals that, in relation to an art not his own, he could hold principles of execution, and indicate perfection of finish, which, to say the least, must proceed from a general capacity for art, and therefore might find an equally conscious operation in his own peculiar province of it. For our own part, we think that his results are a perfect combination of the results of consciousness and unconsciousness; consciousness where the arrangements of the play, outside the region of inspiration, required the care of the wakeful intellect; unconsciousness where the subject itself bore him aloft on the wings of its own creative delight.
There is another manifestation of his power which will astonish those who consider it. It is this: that, while he was able to go down to the simple and grand realities of human nature, which are all tragic; and while, therefore, he must rejoice most in such contemplations of human nature as find fit outlet in a "Hamlet," a "Lear," a "Timon," or an "Othello," the tragedies of Doubt, Ingratitude, and Love, he can yet, when he chooses, float on the very surface of human nature, as in "Love's Labour's Lost," "The Merry Wives of Windsor," "The Comedy of Errors," "The Taming of the Shrew;" or he can descend half way as it were, and there remain suspended in the characters and feelings of ordinary nice people, who, interesting enough to meet in society, have neither received that development, nor are placed in those circumstances, which admit of the highest and simplest poetic treatment. In these he will bring out the ordinary noble or the ordinary vicious. Of this nature are most of his comedies, in which he gives an ideal representation of common social life, and steers perfectly clear of what in such relations and surroundings would be heroics. Look how steadily he keeps the noble-minded youth Orlando in this middle region; and look how the best comes out at last in the wayward and recalcitrant and bizarre, but honest and true natures of Beatrice and Benedick; and this without any untruth to the nature of comedy, although the circumstances border on the tragic. When he wants to give the deeper affairs of the heart, he throws the whole at once out of the social circle with its multiform restraints. As in "Hamlet" the stage on which the whole is acted is really the heart of Hamlet, so he makes his visible stage as it were, slope off into the misty infinite, with a grey, starless heaven overhead, and Hades open beneath his feet. Hence young people brought up in the country understand the tragedies far sooner than they can comprehend the comedies. It needs acquaintance with society and social ways to clear up the latter.
The remarks we have made on "Hamlet" by way of illustration, lead us to point out how Shakspere prepares, in some of his plays, a stage suitable for all the representation. In "A Midsummer Night's Dream" the place which gives tone to the whole is a midnight wood in the first flush and youthful delight of summer. In "As You Like it" it is a daylight wood in spring, full of morning freshness, with a cold wind now and then blowing through the half-clothed boughs. In "The Tempest" it is a solitary island, circled by the mysterious sea-horizon, over which what may come who can tell?--a place where the magician may work his will, and have all nature at the beck of his superior knowledge.
The only writer who would have had a chance of rivalling Shakspere in his own walk, if he had been born in the same period of English history, is Chaucer. He has the same gift of individualizing the general, and idealizing the portrait. But the best of the dramatic writers of Shakspere's time, in their desire of dramatic individualization, forget the modifying multiformity belonging to individual humanity. In their anxiety to present a character, they take, as it were, a human mould, label it with a certain peculiarity, and then fill in speeches and forms according to the label. Thus the indications of character, of peculiarity, so predominate, the whole is so much of one colour, that the result resembles one of those allegorical personifications in which, as much as possible, everything human is eliminated except what belongs to the peculiarity, the personification. How different is it with Shakspere's representations! He knows that no human being ever was like that. He makes his most peculiar characters speak very much like other people; and it is only over the whole that their peculiarities manifest themselves with indubitable plainness. The one apparent exception is Jaques, in "As You Like it." But there we must remember that Shakspere is representing a man who so chooses to represent himself. He is a man in his humour, or his own peculiar and chosen affectation. Jaques is the writer of his own part; for with him "all the world's a stage, and all the men and women," himself first, "merely players." We have his own presentation of himself, not, first of all, as he is, but as he chooses to be taken. Of course his real self does come out in it, for no man can seem altogether other than he is; and besides, the Duke, who sees quite through him, rebukes him in the manner already referred to; but it is his affectation that gives him the unnatural peculiarity of his modes and speeches. He wishes them to be such.
There is, then, for every one of Shakspere's characters the firm ground of humanity, upon which the weeds, as well as the flowers, glorious or fantastic, as the case may be, show themselves. His more heroic persons are the most profoundly human. Nor are his villains unhuman, although inhuman enough. Compared with Marlowe's Jew, Shylock is a terrible man beside a dreary monster, and, as far as logic and the lex talionis go, has the best of the argument. It is the strength of human nature itself that makes crime strong. Wickedness could have no power of itself: it lives by the perverted powers of good. And so great is Shakspere's sympathy with Shylock even, in the hard and unjust doom that overtakes him, that he dismisses him with some of the spare sympathies of the more tender-hearted of his spectators. Nowhere is the justice of genius more plain than in Shakspere's utter freedom from party-spirit, even with regard to his own creations. Each character shall set itself forth from its own point of view, and only in the choice and scope of the whole shall the judgment of the poet be beheld. He never allows his opinion to come out to the damaging of the individual's own self-presentation. He knows well that for the worst something can be said, and that a feeling of justice and his own right will be strong in the mind of a man who is yet swayed by perfect selfishness. Therefore the false man is not discoverable in his speech, not merely because the villain will talk as like a true man as he may, but because seldom is the villainy clear to the villain's own mind. It is impossible for us to determine whether, in their fierce bandying of the lie, Bolingbroke or Norfolk spoke the truth. Doubtless each believed the other to be the villain that he called him. And Shakspere has no desire or need to act the historian in the decision of that question. He leaves his reader in full sympathy with the perplexity of Richard; as puzzled, in fact, as if he had been present at the interrupted combat.
If every writer could write up to his own best, we should have far less to marvel at in Shakspere. It is in great measure the wealth of Shakspere's suggestions, giving him abundance of the best to choose from, that lifts him so high above those who, having felt the inspiration of a good idea, are forced to go on writing, constructing, carpentering, with dreary handicraft, before the exhausted faculty has recovered sufficiently to generate another. And then comes in the unerring choice of the best of those suggestions. Yet if any one wishes to see what variety of the same kind of thoughts he could produce, let him examine the treatment of the same business in different plays; as, for instance, the way in which instigation to a crime is managed in "Macbeth," where Macbeth tempts the two murderers to kill Banquo; in "King John," when the King tempts Hubert to kill Arthur; in "The Tempest," when Antonio tempts Sebastian to kill Alonzo; in "As You Like it," when Oliver instigates Charles to kill Orlando; and in "Hamlet," where Claudius urges Laertes to the murder of Hamlet.
He shows no anxiety about being original. When a man is full of his work he forgets himself. In his desire to produce a good play he lays hold upon any material that offers itself. He will even take a bad play and make a good one of it. One of the most remarkable discoveries to the student of Shakspere is the hide-bound poverty of some of the stories, which, informed by his life-power; become forms of strength, richness, and grace. He does what the Spirit in "Comus" says the music he heard might do,--
"create a soul
Under the ribs of death;"
and then death is straightway "clothed upon." And nowhere is the refining operation of his genius more evident than in the purification of these stories. Characters and incidents which would have been honey and nuts to Beaumont and Fletcher are, notwithstanding their dramatic recommendations, entirely remodelled by him. The fair Ophelia is, in the old tale, a common woman, and Hamlet's mistress; while the policy of the Lady of Belmont, who in the old story occupies the place for which he invented the lovely Portia, upon which policy the whole story turns, is such that it is as unfit to set forth in our pages as it was unfit for Shakspere's purposes of art. His noble art refuses to work upon base matter. He sees at once the capabilities of a tale, but he will not use it except he may do with it what he pleases.
If we might here offer some assistance to the young student who wants to help himself, we would suggest that to follow, in a measure, Plutarch's fashion of comparison, will be the most helpful guide to the understanding of the poet. Let the reader take any two characters, and putting them side by side, look first for differences, and then for resemblances between them, with the causes of each; or let him make a wider attempt, and setting two plays one over against the other, compare or contrast them, and see what will be the result. Let him, for instance, take the two characters Hamlet and Brutus, and compare their beginnings and endings, the resemblances in their characters, the differences in their conduct, the likeness and unlikeness of what was required of them, the circumstances in which action was demanded of each, the helps or hindrances each had to the working out of the problem of his life, the way in which each encounters the supernatural, or any other question that may suggest itself in reading either of the plays, ending off with the main lesson taught in each; and he will be astonished to find, if he has not already discovered it, what a rich mine of intellectual and spiritual wealth is laid open to his delighted eyes. Perhaps not the least valuable end to be so gained is, that the young Englishman, who wants to be delivered from any temptation to think himself the centre around which the universe revolves, will be aided in his endeavours after honourable humility by looking up to the man who towers, like Saul, head and shoulders above his brethren, and seeing that he is humble, may learn to leave it to the pismire to be angry, to the earwig to be conceited, and to the spider to insist on his own importance.
But to return to the main course of our observations. The dramas of Shakspere are so natural, that this, the greatest praise that can be given them, is the ground of one of the difficulties felt by the young student in estimating them. The very simplicity of Shakspere's art seems to throw him out of any known groove of judgment. When he hears one say, "_Look at this, and admire_," he feels inclined to rejoin, "Why, he only says in the simplest way what the thing must have been. It is as plain as daylight." Yes, to the reader; and because Shakspere wrote it. But there were a thousand wrong ways of doing it: Shakspere took the one right way. It is he who has made it plain in art, whatever it was before in nature; and most likely the very simplicity of it in nature was scarcely observed before he saw it and represented it. And is it not the glory of art to attain this simplicity? for simplicity is the end of all things--all manners, all morals, all religion. To say that the thing could not have been done otherwise, is just to say that you forget the art in beholding its object, that you forget the mirror because you see nature reflected in the mirror. Any one can see the moon in Lord Rosse's telescope; but who made the reflector? And let the student try to express anything in prose or in verse, in painting or in modelling, just as it is. No man knows till he has made many attempts, how hard to reach is this simplicity of art. And the greater the success, the fewer are the signs of the labour expended. Simplicity is art's perfection.
But so natural are all his plays, and the great tragedies to which we would now refer in particular, amongst the rest, that it may appear to some, at first sight, that Shakspere could not have constructed them after any moral plan, could have had no lesson of his own to teach in them, seeing they bear no marks of individual intent, in that they depart nowhere from, nature, the construction of the play itself going straight on like a history. The directness of his plays springs in part from the fact that it is humanity and not circumstance that Shakspere respects. Circumstance he uses only for the setting forth of humanity; and for the plot of circumstance, so much in favour with Ben Jonson, and others of his contemporaries, he cares nothing. As to their looking too natural to have any design in them, we are not of those who believe that it is unlike nature to have a design and a result. If the proof of a high aim is to be what the critics used to call poetic justice, a kind of justice that one would gladly find more of in grocers' and linen-drapers' shops, but can as well spare from a poem, then we must say that he has not always a high end: the wicked man is not tortured, nor is the good man smothered in bank-notes and rose-leaves. Even when he shows the outward ruin and death that comes upon Macbeth at last, it is only as an unavoidable little consequence, following in the wake of the mighty vengeance of nature, even of God, that Macbeth cannot say Amen; that Macbeth can sleep no more; that Macbeth is "cabined cribbed, confined, bound in to saucy doubts and fears;" that his very brain is a charnel-house, whence arise the ghosts of his own murders, till he envies the very dead the rest to which his hand has sent them. That immediate and eternal vengeance upon crime, and that inner reward of well-doing, never fail in nature or in Shakspere, appear as such a matter of course that they hardly look like design either in nature or in the mirror which he holds up to her. The secret is that, in the ideal, habit and design are one.
Most authors seem anxious to round off and finish everything in full sight. Most of Shakspere's tragedies compel our thoughts to follow their persons across the bourn. They need, as Jean Paul says, a piece of the next world painted in to complete the picture, And this is surely nature: but it need not therefore be no design. What could be done with Hamlet, but send him into a region where he has some chance of finding his difficulties solved; where he will know that his reverence for God, which was the sole stay left him in the flood of human worthlessness, has not been in vain; that the skies are not "a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours;" that there are noble women, though his mother was false and Ophelia weak; and that there are noble men, although his uncle and Laertes were villains and his old companions traitors? If Hamlet is not to die, the whole of the play must perish under the accusation that the hero of it is left at last with only a superadded misery, a fresh demand for action, namely, to rule a worthless people, as they seem to him, when action has for him become impossible; that he has to live on, forsaken even of death, which will not come though the cup of misery is at the brim.
But a high end may be gained in this world, and the vision into the world beyond so justified, as in King Lear. The passionate, impulsive, unreasoning old king certainly must have given his wicked daughters occasion enough of making the charges to which their avarice urged them. He had learned very little by his life of kingship. He was but a boy with grey hair. He had had no inner experiences. And so all the development of manhood and age has to be crowded into the few remaining weeks of his life. His own folly and blindness supply the occasion. And before the few weeks are gone, he has passed through all the stages of a fever of indignation and wrath, ending in a madness from which love redeems him; he has learned that a king is nothing if the man is nothing; that a king ought to care for those who cannot help themselves; that love has not its origin or grounds in favours flowing from royal resource and munificence, and yet that love is the one thing worth living for, which gained, it is time to die. And now that he has the experience that life can give, has become a child in simplicity of heart and judgment, he cannot lose his daughter again; who, likewise, has learned the one thing she needed, as far as her father was concerned, a little more excusing tenderness. In the same play it cannot be by chance that at its commencement Gloucester speaks with the utmost carelessness and off-hand wit about the parentage of his natural son Edmund, but finds at last that this son is his ruin.
Edgar, the true son, says to Edmund, after having righteously dealt him his death-wound,--
"The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices Make instruments to scourge us:
The dark and vicious place where thee he got Cost him his eyes."
To which the dying and convicted villain replies,--
"Thou hast spoken right; 'tis true: The wheel is come full circle; I am here."
Could anything be put more plainly than the moral lesson in this?
It would be easy to produce examples of fine design from his comedies as well; as for instance, from "Much Ado about Nothing:" the two who are made to fall in love with each other, by being each severally assured of possessing the love of the other, Beatrice and Benedick, are shown beforehand to have a strong inclination towards each other, manifested in their continual squabbling after a good-humoured fashion; but not all this is sufficient to make them heartily in love, until they find out the nobility of each other's character in their behaviour about the calumniated Hero; and the author takes care they shall not be married without a previous acquaintance with the trick that has been played upon them. Indeed we think the remark, that Shakspere never leaves any of his characters the same at the end of a play as he took them up at the beginning, will be found to be true. They are better or worse, wiser or more irretrievably foolish. The historical plays would illustrate the remark as well as any.
But of all the terrible plays we are inclined to think "Timon" the most terrible, and to doubt whether justice has been done to the finish and completeness of it. At the same time we are inclined to think that it was printed (first in the first folio, 1623, seven years after Shakspere's death) from a copy, corrected by the author, but not written fair, and containing consequent mistakes. The same account might belong to others of the plays, but more evidently perhaps belongs to the "Timon." The idea of making the generous spendthrift, whose old idolaters had forsaken him because the idol had no more to give, into the high-priest of the Temple of Mammon, dispensing the gold which he hated and despised, that it might be a curse to the race which he had learned to hate and despise as well; and the way in which Shakspere discloses the depths of Timon's wound, by bringing him into comparison with one who hates men by profession and humour--are as powerful as anything to be found even in Shakspere.
We are very willing to believe that "Julius Caesar" was one of his latest plays; for certainly it is the play in which he has represented a hero in the high and true sense. Brutus is this hero, of course; a hero because he will do what he sees to be right, independently of personal feeling or personal advantage. Nor does his attempt fail from any overweening or blindness, in himself. Had he known that the various papers thrown in his way, were the concoctions of Cassius, he would not have made the mistake of supposing that the Romans longed for freedom, and therefore would be ready to defend it. As it was, he attempted to liberate a people which did not feel its slavery. He failed for others, but not for himself; for his truth was such that everybody was true to him. Unlike Jaques with his seven acts of the burlesque of human life, Brutus says at the last,--
My heart doth joy, that yet, in all my life, I found no man but he was true to me."
Of course all this is in Plutarch. But it is easy to see with what relish Shakspere takes it up, setting forth all the aids in himself and in others which Brutus had to being a hero, and thus making the representation as credible as possible.
We must heartily confess that no amount of genius alone will make a man a good man; that genius only shows the right way--drives no man to walk in it. But there is surely some moral scent in us to let us know whether a man only cares for good from an artistic point of view, or whether he admires and loves good. This admiration and love cannot be prominently set forth by any dramatist true to his art; but it must come out over the whole. His predilections must show themselves in the scope of his artistic life, in the things and subjects he chooses, and the way in which he represents them. Notwithstanding Uncle Toby and Maria, who will venture to say that Sterne was noble or virtuous, when he looks over the whole that he has written? But in Shakspere there is no suspicion of a cloven foot. Everywhere he is on the side of virtue and of truth. Many small arguments, with great cumulative force, might be adduced to this effect.
For ourselves we cannot easily believe that the calmness of his art could be so unvarying except he exercised it with a good conscience; that he could have kept looking out upon the world around him with the untroubled regard necessary for seeing all things as they are, except there had been peace in his house at home; that he could have known all men as he did, and failed to know himself. We can understand the co-existence of any degree of partial or excited genius with evil ways, but we cannot understand the existence of such calm and universal genius, wrought out in his works, except in association with all that is noblest in human nature. Nor is it other than on the side of the argument for his rectitude that he never forces rectitude upon the attention of others. The strong impression left upon our minds is, that however Shakspere may have strayed in the early portion of his life in London, he was not only an upright and noble man for the main part, but a repentant man, and a man whose life was influenced by the truths of Christianity.
Much is now said about a memorial to Shakspere. The best and only true memorial is no doubt that described in Milton's poem on this very
subject: the living and ever-changing monument of human admiration,
expressed in the faces and forms of those absorbed in the reading of his
works. But if the external monument might be such as to foster the
constant reproduction of the inward monument of love and admiration,
then, indeed, it might be well to raise one; and with this object in view let us venture to propose one mode which we think would favour the attainment of it.
Let a Gothic hall of the fourteenth century be built; such a hall as would be more in the imagination of Shakspere than any of the architecture of his own time. Let all the copies that can be procured of every early edition of his works, singly or collectively, be stored in this hall. Let a copy of every other edition ever printed be procured and deposited. Let every book or treatise that can be found, good, bad, or indifferent, written about Shakspere or any of his works, be likewise collected for the Shakspere library. Let a special place be allotted to the shameless corruptions of his plays that have been produced as improvements upon them, some of which, to the disgrace of England, still partially occupy the stage instead of what Shakspere wrote. Let one department contain every work of whatever sort that tends to direct elucidation of his meaning, chiefly those of the dramatic writers who preceded him and closely followed him. Let the windows be filled with stained glass, representing the popular sports of his own time and the times of his English histories. Let a small museum be attached, containing all procurable antiquities that are referred to in his plays, along with first editions, if possible, of the best books that came out in his time, and were probably read by him. Let the whole thus as much as possible represent his time. Let a marble statue in the midst do the best that English art can accomplish for the representation of the vanished man; and let copies, if not the originals, of the several portraits be safely shrined for the occasional beholding of the multitude. Let the perpetuity of care necessary for this monument be secured by endowment; and let it be for the use of the public, by means of a reading-room fitted for the comfort of all who choose to avail themselves of these facilities for a true acquaintance with our greatest artist. Let there likewise be a simple and moderately-sized theatre attached, not for regular, but occasional use; to be employed for the representation of Shakspere's plays only, and allowed free of expense for amateur or other representations of them for charitable purposes. But within a certain cycle of years--if, indeed, it would be too much to expect that out of the London play-goers a sufficient number would be found to justify the representation of all the plays of Shakspere once in the season--let the whole of Shakspere's plays be acted in the best manner possible to the managers for the time being.
The very existence of such a theatre would be a noble protest of the highest kind against the sort of play, chiefly translated and adapted from the French, which infests our boards, the low tone of which, even where it is not decidedly immoral, does more harm than any amount of the rough, honest plain-spokenness of Shakspere, as judged by our more fastidious, if not always purer manners. The representation of such plays forms the real ground of objection to theatre-going. We believe that other objections, which may be equally urged against large assemblies of any sort, are not really grounded upon such an amount of objectionable fact as good people often suppose. At all events it is not against the drama itself, but its concomitants, its avoidable concomitants, that such objections are, or ought to be, felt and directed. The dramatic impulse, as well as all other impulses of our nature, are from the Maker.
A monument like this would help to change a blind enthusiasm and a dilettante-talk into knowledge, reverence, and study; and surely this would be the true way to honour the memory of the man who appeals to posterity by no mighty deeds of worldly prowess, but has left behind him food for heart, brain, and conscience, on which the generations will feed till the end of time. It would be the one true and natural mode of perpetuating his fame in kind; helping him to do more of that for which he was born, and because of which we humbly desire to do him honour, as the years flow farther away from the time when, at the age of fifty-two, he left the world a richer legacy of the results of intellectual labour than any other labourer in literature has ever done. It would be to raise a monument to his mind more than to his person.
But to honour Shakspere in the best way we must not gaze upon some grand memorial of his fame, we must not talk largely of his wonderful doings, we must not even behold the representation of his works on the stage, invaluable aid as that is to the right understanding of what he has written; but we must, by close, silent, patient study, enter into an understanding with the spirit of the departed poet-sage, and thus let his own words be the necromantic spell that raises the dead, and brings us into communion with that man who knew what was in men more than any other mere man ever did. Well was it for Shakspere that he was humble; else on what a desolate pinnacle of companionless solitude must he have stood! Where was he to find his peers? To most thoughtful minds it is a terrible fancy to suppose that there were no greater human being than themselves. From the terror of such a truth Shakspere's love for men preserved him. He did not think about himself so much as he thought about them. Had he been a self-student alone, or chiefly, could he ever have written those dramas? We close with the repetition of this truth: that the love of our kind is the one key to the knowledge of humanity and of ourselves. And have we not sacred authority for concluding that he who loves his brother is the more able and the more likely to love Him who made him and his brother also, and then told them that love is the fulfilling of the law?