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visualize the characters. But Shakespeare's plays visualize themselves. Each character is, as it were, costumed in his own language. Erase the names of the speakers, and the text itself keeps them in place. Destroy stage directions, remove the stage from under their feet, and pull down the theatre, and yet the play goes forward: everything is expressed in the lines themselves. Every shade of emotion that fits through the heart of a character is reduced to a thought; and thus the rapidly moving story is accompanied by a cloud or nimbus of running commentary, gay or gloomy, poetic or worldly-wise according to circumstance, but always metaphysical, always Shakespeare.
These side-lights and explanations in Shakespeare are really the remarks of the narrator himself, but he has so colored them to suit each character and so woven them into the action, that they pass as mere gestures and do not dog the story too closely. They expound it, illuminate it, keep it alive. When the average man reads one of the plays for the first time, he wants to know what is going to happen. When he has satisfied this curiosity he becomes ensnared in the wit, wisdom, and beauty of the piece. He no longer cares whether the thing be a story or not; for after listening for two hours to the most inspired talker the world has ever known, almost anyone is apt to come back to his elbow. He returns to refathom the piece, for fear he may have missed something; and after this he browses in all the plays during his leisure hours, and finds pictures of low life, pictures of high life, mad, passionate romance, caustic wit, village drollery, dungeons, fairies, Roman history, English
kings, many familiar words and thoughts whose origin he had not known, fragments of his own mind as it were, anticipations of his own experience, things so well said and so naturally said that he is astonished. The page vanishes, the book drops from his hand, and he is in a brown study.
Dreamy and emotional people like the plays for their poetry; humdrum people like them for their common sense. While Shakespeare was one of the most extravagant thinkers that ever lived, - a moody, brooding romanticist, — he was also a practical man, inordinately sociable, observant, and proverbial. Thus, almost anyone who has lived an active life and knows the world finds a friend in Shakespeare.
About eighty years ago there was a certain substantial merchant of Boston who retired from business with a competency, and found himself with time on his hands. A friend advised him to read Shakespeare, which he did, and was immensely impressed. ‘That 's a great book, sir, an extraordinary book! Why, sir, there are not ten men in Boston who could have written it!"
It would be hard to draw up a summary of Shakespeare's disciples. The “Tempest" seems to a child to be a fairy tale; but to the German scholar it is an apocalypse of certain Teutonic philosophic ideas, which are difficult for the outsider to appreciate. Ought one to begrudge his mental pasture to the German, or can we assign limits to the meanings of poetry? The plays are concentric, gyrating spheres of interest. The wit is everywhere, and draws in one man; the humor is everywhere, and draws in the next.
The perfection of utterance hypnotizes a very large class, of which I confess myself one: I forget everything in the language. The mere contrast of characters is enough to intoxicate other readers, quite apart from what the creatures do or say, somewhat as the mere coloring of the great masters excites certain beholders. One feels that these contrasts have been imagined in a region of thought that is inaccessible to the ordinary mind.
Not long ago I read “Cymbeline” aloud to a little girl of eight. It took several days, for I read every scene; and I was, of course, obliged to expound and digress from time to time, in order to make the story clear; for the plot is extremely complex and long drawn out. I am not myself very fond of “Cymbeline.” It is a tissue of inordinate romantic fancy, like an enormous tapestry, for which I have no room in my house. But to the little girl it was as real as Red Riding Hood and much more thrilling. Romance rushed from the play in the fourth line of its opening, and found Imogen in the heart of the child. Sec. Gent.
But what's the matter? First Gent. His daughter, the heir of 's kingdom,
herself Unto a poor but worthy gentleman: she's
“Cymbeline" is one of Shakespeare's latest plays, and is said to be a masterpiece of dramatic virtuosity. Its poetic merits belong to those supersensuous, ecstatic, virginal enthusiasms which no one but Shakespeare has ever expressed. The play was one of Tennyson's favorites; and a copy of it was found in his hands on his deathbed and was buried with him. Here we have the child and Tennyson and certain dramatic critics all in accord over something which is
but dimly visible to me. I have read learned essays upon Shakespeare's habit of juggling with our sense of time, now seeming to accelerate, now to retard the progress of the plot, and always feeding the action with new fires. “Othello,” for instance, is thought to show traces of an elaborate and calculated system of hints by which we are led to believe at one moment that some weeks have elapsed, and at the next that only an hour or two has passed, between one scene and the next. I am half afraid to examine such questions, lest the charm of the play should vanish in them; for I am convinced that such things were woven unconsciously into the marvelous fabric as it grew, and should be accepted and consumed by the reader in a passing glance, which is as unconscious as was the feeling that created them. Woe be to the man who cries “Stand and deliver" to Shakespeare's fancy or to life itself! While immersed in the living stream and volume of his mind, we get our share of him, and that is enough. His spectres rise in the fumes of the brain and cannot be conjured to submission. They will not seed or plough for us. They are not exactly human beings, but thoughts - phantoms that pass and repass through the castle walls of life, sit on the battlements in the sunlight, and behold, nothing is there! The tragedies and the comedies live in the same region, exciting thought, wonder, joy, surprise, admiration, but never grief. Even Ophelia does not excite grief.
Thought, affliction, passion, hell itself,
Nor King Lear, who turns sufferings to a pathos that is beyond the reach of tears. Breathless we watch them, not sorrow-stricken, not saddened, but awed; and the bright troops, motley characters, irresponsible humorists, Dogberrys, gravediggers, jailors, who flock so close to the cortège of Shakespeare's funerals, please, relieve, and console us because they too are phantoms made of the same light - deflections, pendants, the half-expected completions of a dream.
Shall we call it the Tragic or the Comic in Shakespeare that so moves us ? One of Plato's most profound surmises, namely, that the genius for Tragedy and the genius for Comedy were akin, waited eighteen hundred years to be exemplified; for Shakespeare's plays show that the Tragic and the Comic are one. This remarkable idea may have occurred to Plato because he was himself a species of dramatist - an entertainer and a jongleur; and perhaps he happened on the idea as a trade-secret: he found it at the bottom of his pack. Tragedy and Comedy are recreations; but it was not till Shakespeare came and gave to both of them unimagined depths of meaning and