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or understand the confused characters we should find there without some interpreter. We should be just as much unable to distinguish the writing, as the inartistic mind does a natural landscape, or an unscientific one a complex piece of machinery. Shakspeare supplies the scene, supplies the machinery, and gives with them the interpretation; not from his own conceit or any preconceived theory, not because he has any certain scientific bias or philosophic views of art, which he is desirous to work out and set before us in their concrete forms, but because he held the mirror up to nature. That nuditas animi' which Bacon considered indispensable for the acquisition of truth, with which the severest study must begin and end, Shakspeare possessed more than most men. Unlike the dramatists from the University, who came to their task with imperfect notions of the rules of classical antiquity; unlike Ben Jonson, who thought that a dramatist must be dieted by system, and feed and fast by regimen, to attain perfection, it was the reproach of Shakspeare that he owed nothing to art and all to nature. The reproach was unfounded; but if it be meant that he brought to his task no dry theories, no poetical dogmas, no personal prejudices to interfere with his strict and rigid observance of nature, the remark is just. No poet is more impersonal; no poet mixes up with his most admired and successful creations less of his personal predilections. It is impossible to select any one character from the whole range of his dramatis personæ of which it can be said, this was a favourite with the poet. In the full torrent of his wit or the excitement of his eloquence, in the successful exhibition of retributive villany or the defence of injured innocence, he stops at the due moment, never overstepping the modesty of nature. The scene closes, the character is dropped, the moment the action requires it; and however just or true or exquisite the conception, it falls back into the void of the past from which it had been summoned, often to the greatest regret of the reader and spectator, but with no apparent regret on the part of the poet. Artists and painters in general have their likes and their dislikes, as strong but not always the same as the admirers of their works; they can rarely work successfully without such prejudices. It is natural for the artist to fall in love with his own creations, and natural that what he loves and all admire, he should repeat in various shapes again and again. But in Shakspeare this never happens. His is the truthfulness and dispassionateness of a mirror. And if the unfeeling, the erring, and the vicious are not unmitigated monsters in his pages, it is because they are human; not because his sympathies would have concealed their deformities. It is because even the toad, ugly and venomous, wears yet a precious jewel in
its head. The utmost vice in this life is not beyond redemption; the utmost virtue not without its flaws.
But it may be thought that these remarks are inapplicable to those creations of the poet which lie beyond the pale of human experience; such as the witches, fairies, and ghosts introduced into some of his plays. Yet it is worth observing how scrupulous even in these cases the poet is of adhering to popular tradition. Only, as popular credulity is always falling before that idolon (against which Bacon protests), of determining the unseen by the seen, the spiritual by the material, Shakspeare is on his guard against this error. He raises the vulgar witches, with their popular familiars, the cat, the toad, the storm, and the sieve, into spirits of evil, surrounded by spiritual terrors and endowed with spiritual agencies. The fairies have persons, occupations, passions that are not human, nor are they susceptible of human attachments. The same may be said of Ariel and Caliban ; the one above, as the other is below humanity. The habits of each are solitary, not social, and both are alike unsusceptible of friendship or gratitude. The ghost of Hamlet's father is another instance of the poet's wonderful mastery in uniting the vulgar and sublime. How was the poet to combine in the same personality the earthly father calling for revenge with the disembodied spirit—the substantial with the unsubstantialthe 'sans eyes, sans teeth, sans every thing,' with voice, motion, armour ? But the popular notion of purgatorial fire, and the half earthly, half unearthly creed of the Middle Ages, on which he readily laid hold, were a great assistance. Here too the genius of Shakspeare delights in triumphing over the union of impossibilities. The ubiquity of the ghost is so harmonized with his local personality, that the reader detects no incongruity in the composition. Besides, when he is first discovered, as the sentinels tramp up and down the parapet of the castle, with the sea roaring fathoms down at the foot, who can tell whether the Ghost comes striding along close by in the impalpable air, or on the firm ground.? That Shakspeare should have acted this part we can well believe, for none but he could have conceived how a spirit would or should talk. The characters least within the bounds of human probability are Falstaff and Richard III. : the former as the ideal humourist, the type and catholic original of those eccentricities, which Shakspeare's contemporaries tried to draw, but could not; the other as the type of what sixty years of intestine fever and bloodshed must produce—the poisonous fungus generated out of political, social, inoral anarchy, all combined. Both are what Bacon would have called the monads of nature.
Shakspeare, Shakspeare, then, had no idealisms which he wished to present in visible forms beyond those which would be found in the exact representation of nature. If critics have since professed to discover in his works the profoundest revelations of art and science, that is because those arts and sciences are found in the facts presented us by the poet, and not because they were consciously present to his mind.
It is this continued freshness and nudity of mind, ever open to the impressions of experience, that prevents him from falling into that mannerism or unity of style and treatment, into which, with his single exception, all other poets and artists have fallen. His mind is never stationary ; he never contein plates his subject from one point of view exclusively ; he is not a narrator, a spectator ab extra, or an epic poet, but he is intensely dramatic ; that is, his own personality is sunk entirely in that of his creations. In this respect he is superior to any poet that ever lived, not merely in the complete embodiment of the characters he introduces, but in their number and variety. Every known region of the globe is laid under contribution ; Greeks, Romans, Italians, French, Englishmen, Asiatics, Egyptians; ancient, modern, mediæval times. Every rank, every profession, every age and condition of life passed before his eyes ;-once seen never to be forgotten; once stored up in his memory, as in a treasure-house, to be summoned forth, not as pale colourless spectres
What story coldly tells, what poets feign
Senseless and soulless shows 'but with their full complement of humanity, action, thought, feelings, words, infinite shades of expressions and emotions. More true also to nature than other dramatists, Shakspeare's characters are never the mouthpiece of uniform sentiments, passions, or temptations; they are not the living embodiments of abstract qualities which never vary and never grow. The masterless passion is shadowed off by endless varieties and transitional modes of feeling. It is deposed from its seat by inferior motives, and restored when the due time comes. The brave are not always brave; the cruel not always unmerciful. Though the unity of the character is never lost sight of, it is not a stagnant uniformity, but grows and develops with the action, and is acted on by the circumstances of the play or the influences of others. As in the infinite variety of nature, form, colour, smell, contour, grow harmoniously and simultaneously, and all from the original organism of the plant-are not, as in human mechanism, the result of successive efforts -so it is in Shakspeare. The unity of the character is never lost in its diversity; the widest apparent divergence from its primitive conception and outset may be traced back, step by step, with the accuracy of a natural and necessary law. Action, speech, expression, the colour and metre of the diction, grow out of the original unity of the character, and yet mould themselves with plastic ease to every diversity of its sentiments and feelings.
It is this ever-varying posture of mind, this flexibility in the style, structure, and colour of his language, adapting itself to every movement of the thought, that makes it so difficult to determine on any common measure of the poet's mind, or, beyond the general power they exhibit, to determine what is genuine in his plays and what is not so. Conclusions derived from some supposed type of style and metre must not be trusted. How can they be, unless we shall have ascertained beforehand in any given case that they are incompatible with the poet's purpose or conception? Homer felt no difficulty in putting heroic words and heroic hexameters in the mouth of Thersites; a catalogue of the ships falls into the same rhythm with the anger of Achilles. The common soldier, or the barbarous Thracian, utters his thoughts in as choice Greek, as musical and as sonorous as Edipus or Agamemnon. But with Shakspeare the style and metre are moulded by the thought, and not the thought by the metre. Common every-day thoughts fall into prose; Dogberry and Sir Toby Belch rise not into the solemnity of verse. Falstaff and the humours of Eastcheap are the prose and the comedy of Henry IV. and the palace.
That such a writer as this could not fail of being popular with his countrymen we may well believe, and the evidence that he was so is full and unquestionable. It is clear from the repeated references made to him in the writings of contemporary poets. It is clear from the influence he exercised upon the stage; for however inferior subsequent dramatists might be to the great original, it requires very little reading to discover how much in style, composition, regularity of structure, delineation of character, they were indebted to his example. It is clear from the number of his dramas, from the repeated editions of them during his lifetime, from the competition of the booksellers to secure the right of publishing them, from the admiration, not to say the envy, of those to whom theatrical audiences were far less indulgent. Nor was this popularity purchased by vicious condescension to the popular tastes :
With such a show
The occasional coarseness of Shakspeare is the coarseness of strong Englishmen, who laughed and grew fat' over jokes which might shock the delicacy and moral digestion of more refined ages, or more sensitive and sentimental races, but did them no more harm mentally than their tough beef dressed with saffron and ambergris, or their hundred-herring pies, or tainted red-deer pasties, interfered with their bodily health. Think of an age that mixed sugar with its wines, and frothed its sack with lime; Homeric in its achievements and in its appetites, in its tastes and its enterprises ! But Shakspeare is refinement itself as compared with some of his contemporary and with most succeeding dramatists. He does not rely for interesting his hearers on the display of moral or mental horrors, or questionable liaisons, in which so much of the ancient Italian fiction abounded. If we except • Pericles' and Titus Andronicus,' there is throughout his plays an absence of the monstrous and the horrible; and the poems of the poet are wholly employed in delineating action and character, either within the ordinary reach of probability, or sanctioned by historical evidence.
But his popularity is also evidenced by his extraordinary profusion. For six-and-thirty years successively he kept possession of the stage, and riveted his claims to popularity by producing seven-and-thirty dramas within that period : not of mere farce or incident—not hasty, incorrect, and tumultuous—but as much superior to the dramas of others in their ease and elaboration as for still higher qualities of genius. Not one of these plays was reproduced in another form : scarcely a word or sentence in any of the thirty-seven can be traced to other sources. This is as wonderful as anything else in Shakspeare. Other poets ' toil after him in vain.' Tears and laughter, the inseparable attendants of surpassing genius, are equally and at all times, and in all degrees, at Shakspeare's command. The wit of Dogberry and the sailors in “The Tempest,' the wit of kings in
Henry IV.' and 'Love's Labour's Lost,' the wit of Falstaff and of Hamlet; native wit, philosophic wit, the wit of the fat and of the lean man; wit in the half-glimmerings of dawning reason, and of reason trenching upon madness; the wit of temperaments like Mercutio's, of topers like Sir Toby Belch, of mischief like Maria and Cleopatra, of confident villany like Richard III.
-all these, and many more, flow from him with inexhaustible fertility. Nor is the pathetic and the tragic exhibited under less multiplicity of forms. Nor is it less sudden and meteoric than the wit. The reader is taken by surprise. It flashes on him with the suddenness and vividness of an electric flash. He is