صور الصفحة
النشر الإلكتروني

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

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

And as the theme of the poet extends to the furthest verge of human experience, and sounds all the surging depths of human consciousness, Shakspeare is equally master of the many moods and voices in which that consciousness expresses itself. He is dramatic as in . Henry IV.,' or epic as in Richard II.,' or lyric as in “Romeo and Juliet,' melodrainatic in “Titus Andronicus,' farcical in the Comedy of Errors,' subjective and philosophic in • Hamlet,' a master of scholastic logic in Pandulph, of rhetoric in Mark Antony, pastoral in Perdita, elegiac in Cymbeline.' His songs are unapproachable; there is nothing like them, or near them in the whole range of English literature, abundant


as that literature is in this species of composition. And the beauty of these songs consists not merely in the sentiment or the exquisite adaptation of the expression, or their display of broad and obvious feelings, as opposed to those subtleties and metaphysical conceits of a later age, or in their musical structure -all of which they have in perfection--but also in their appropriateness to place and occasion. As contrasted also with later İyrics, the impersonality of Shakspeare is as strictly preserved in his songs as in other parts of his dramatic writings.

It seems then absurd to suppose that such a poet wrote in vain for the nation—that he was not appreciated in his own day. Such insensibility would have been a national disgrace and misfortunema proof that Shakspeare was not an Englishman, or bad materially failed in understanding his countrymen; the only race he did not understand. But, putting aside the praises of Ben Jonson and others, how stand the facts? The folio of 1623 was followed by the folio of 1632, and with it the sonnet in Shakspeare's praise by Milton. The poem entitled 'Allegro' represents Shakspeare as the favourite, not merely of the Puritan poet, but as the general favourite of the stage. It is Milton that accuses Charles I. of making Shakspeare the companion of his solitary hours. One hears again of the memorable Hales of Eton, of the accomplished Lord Falkland, of the favourite Cavalier poet Sir John Suckling, discussing at their social meetings the merits of Shakspeare as compared with the Greek dramatists. Of Selden, Chief Justice Vaughan, and Lord Falkland, this anecdote is preserved, that Shakespeare had not only found out a new character in his Caliban, but had also devised and adapted a new manner of language for that character.' *

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

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

[ocr errors]

nisms, the puzzle and the triumph of small critics. The whole range of past experience had been gathered up, not as broken remnants, to be pieced together by the laborious ingenuity of a learned mechanism-not to be flaunted in the eyes of readers and spectators as an ornament to be proud of—but fused and melted by the intense imaginations and lofty aspirations of the poet's times into the reach and limits of the present. The past appeared to the apprehension of that age as much related to itself, as much a part of the common humanity of Englishmen in the reign of Elizabeth, as the Armada itself, and the perilous rivalry of the two female sovereigns. To Ascham, Cicero and Demosthenes were not merely statesmen of all times, but of his own times especiallyas much as Burghley and Walsingham, or even more so. The whole age was dramatic to the core. In set speeches, in conversation, in grave state papers, the mythical and the legendary were mixed up with the historical and the present, as if all were alike real, and all intimately blended with one another. The vivid imaginations of men supplied the connecting links and brought the picture home to the mind, instead of setting it off at greater distance, as is the tendency of modern criticism to do. The common ground of all was the supposed humanity of all; varying, indeed, according to time, climate, circumstances, but in all essentials one and the same with themselves and those around them. And this habit of self-identification with past events and principles, with ancient races and parties, with the same zeal and vehemence as they infuse into current politics, has ever been, as it was then, characteristic of Englishmen. If Shakspeare availed himself of this feeling, he did much to foster it. He is comparatively careless of the tiring-room of antiquity, -indifferent, like his age, to the niceties of archæological costume. Humanity is to bim, wherever found, of all time, and equally at home to him in all its fashions; and though he never deals with abstractions, like Spenser, seldom idealizes like him, his realism rests on a broader basis than local manners, personal eccentricities, or historical minuteness. Whilst his Greeks, his Romans, his Italians, his ancient Britons, are true to their race, their country, and their times, and could never be transposed, as in other dramatists, without utter confusion to the whole meaning and conception of the poet, they are intelligible to us, because the poet makes us feel that, however remote they may be, they are of our own flesh and blood; of like passions, temptations, strength, and weakness. It may be said of his genius what Hamlet says of the ubiquity of his father's ghost, hic et ubique ; the ubique is never disjoined from the hic; however wide the rays of his poetical fiction travel, they all converge in one point. Shakspeare is above all other men the Englishman of the 16th century.


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

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

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

: . . Only the poet disdaining to be tied to any subjection, lifted up with the vigour of his own invention, doth grow in effect into another nature; in making things either better than nature bringeth forth or quite anew; forms such as never were in nature, as the Heroes, Demigods, Cyclops, Chimæras, Furies, and such like; so as he goeth hand in hand with nature, not inclosed within the narrow warrant of her gifts, but freely ranging within the zodiac of his own wit. Nature never set forth the work in so rich tapestry as divers poets have done ; neither with so pleasant rivers, fruitful trees, sweet smelling flowers, and whatsoever else may make the too much loved earth more lovely. Her world is brazen, the poet's only silver and golden.' Then he proceeds to say, in language no less solemn, true, and * Defence of Poesy.' Sidney died in 1586.

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

* So that charming pastoral

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


« السابقةمتابعة »