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as to arrest the impression just as it is on the point of becoming tragic. While dealing most seriously with his characters, he uses a certain guile: through them we catch, as it were, a roguish twinkle of his eye, which makes us aware that his mind is secretly sporting itself with their earnestness; so that we have a double sympathy, — a sympathy with their passion and with his play. Thus his humour often acts in such a way as to possess us with mixed emotions: the persons, while moving us with their thoughts, at the same time start us upon other thoughts which have no place in them; and we share in all that they feel, but still are withheld from committing ourselves to them, or so taking part with them as to foreclose a due regard to other claims.
The word style is often used in a sense equally appropriate to all the forms of Art, — a sense having reference to some peculiar mode of conception cr execution; as the Saxon, the Norman, the Romanesque style of architecture, or the style of Titian, of Raphael, of Rembrandt, of Turner, in painting. In this sense, it includes the whole general character or distinctive impression of any given workmanship in Art, and so is applicable to the Drama; as when we speak of a writer's tragic or comic style, or of such and such dramas as being in too operatic a style. The peculiarities of Shakespeare's style in this sense have been involved in the foregoing sections; so that I shall have no occasion to speak further of them in this general survey of the Poet's Art. The more restrained and ordinary meaning of the word looks merely to an author's use of language; that is, his choice and arrangement of words, the structure of his sentences, and the cast and texture of his imagery; all, in short, that enters into his diction, or his manner of conveying his particular thoughts. This is the matter now to be considered. The subject, however, is a very wide one, and naturally draws into a multitude of details; so that I can hardly do more than touch upon a few leading points, lest the discussion should quite overgrow the limits I have prescribed myself.
On a careful inspection of Shakespeare's poetry, it becomes evident that none of the epithets commonly used in regard to style, such as plain, simple, neat, ornate, elegant, florid, figurative, severe, copious, sententious, can be rightly applied to him, at least not as characteristic of him. His style is all of them by turns, and much more besides; but no one of the traits signified by those terms is so continuous or prominent as to render the term in any sort fairly discriminative or descriptive of his diction.
Under this head, then, I am to remark, first, that Shakespeare's language is as far as possible from being of a constant and uniform grain. His style seems to have been always in a sort of fluid and formative state. Except in two or three of his earliest plays, there is indeed a certain common basis, for which we have no word but Shakespearian, running through his several periods of writing; but upon this basis more or less of change is continually supervening. So that he has various distinct styles, corresponding to his different stages of ripeness in his work. These variations, to be sure, are nowise abrupt: the transition from one to another is gradual and insensible, proceeding by growth, not by leaps: but still, after an interval of six or seven years, the difference becomes clearly marked. It will suffice for my purpose to speak of them all under the threefold distinction of earlier, middle, and later styles. And I probably cannot do better than to take King Richard the Second, As You Like It, and Coriolanus, as representing, severally, those three divisions.
Shakespeare began by imitating the prevailing theatrical style of the time. He wrote in much the same way as those before and about him did, till by experience and practice he found out a better way of his own. It is even doubtful whether his first imitations surpassed his models. In Titus Andronicus, the First Part of King Henry the Sixth, and The Comedy of Errors, if there be any thing of the right Shakespearian idiom, it is so overlaid by what he had caught from others as to be hardly discoverable. Accordingly those pieces seem to me little better than worthless, save as specimens of his apprentice-work. In The Two Gentlemen of Verona, also, Love's Labour's Lost, and The Taming of the Shrew, imitation has decidedly the upper hand; though in these plays, especially the latter, we have clear prognostics of the forthcoming dramatic divinity. From thence onward his style kept growing less imitative and more idiomatic till not the least taste or relish of the former remained. So that in this respect his course was in fact just what might be expected from a thoroughly modest, teachable, receptive, and at the same time most living, active, and aspiring mind, — a mind full indeed of native boldness, but yet restrained by judgment and good sense from the crudeness and temerity of self-will and eccentric impulse, and not trusting to its own strength till it had better reasons for doing so than the promptings of vanity and egotism.
It is to this process of imitation that the Poet's faults of style are to be mainly ascribed; though in the end it was no doubt in a great measure the source of his excellences also. For, taking his works in the order of their production, we can perceive very clearly that his faults of style kept disappearing as he became more and more himself. He advanced in the path of improvement by slow tentative methods, and was evidently careful not to deviate from what was before him till he saw unmistakably how he could do better. As he was thus "most severe in fashion and collection of himself"; so he worked in just the true way for disciplining and regulating his genius into power; and so in due time he had a good right to be " as clear and confident as Jove."
Shakespeare's faults of style, especially in his earlier plays, are neither few nor small. Among these are to be reckoned, of course, his frequent quibbles and plays upon words, his verbal conceits and affectations, his equivoques and clinches. Many of these are palpable sins against manliness; not a few of them are decidedly puerile; the results of an epidemic of trifling and of fanciful prettiness. Some critics, it is true, have strained a point, if not several points, in defence of them; but it seems to me that a fair-minded criticism has no way but to set them down as plain blemishes and disfigurements. And our right, nay, our duty to call them such is fully approved in that the Poet himself seasonably outgrew and forsook them; a comparison of his earlier and later plays thus showing that his manlier taste discarded them. They were however nowise characteristic of him: they were the fashion of the day, and were common to all the dramatic writers of the time. Nor were they by any means confined to the walks of the Drama: many men of the highest character and position both in Church and State were more or less infected with them.
It is not likely indeed that Shakespeare at first regarded these things as faults, or that he adopted them reluctantly in compliance with the popular bent, and as needful to success. In his youth he doubtless used them in good faith, and even sought for them as traits of excellence; for he himself shared to the fullest extent in the redundancy of mental life which distinguished the age, and which naturally loves to sport itself in such quirks of thought and speech. But it is manifest that he was not long in growing to distaste them, notwithstanding that he still continued occasionally to practise them. For, even in The Merchant of Venice, which I reckon among the last in his earlier or the first in his middle style, we find him censuring the thing while indulging it:
"0, dear discretion, how his words are suited!
Garnish'd like him, that for a tricksy word
In the case here censured, however, the thing, though a vice in itself, is no offence to good taste, and may even be justly noted as a stroke of dramatic virtue, because it is rightly characteristic of the person using it: which only makes the reproof the more pointed as aimed at the habit, then but two common in the high places of learning, of so twisting language into puns and conceits, that one could hardly come at the sense. But I can admit no such plea, when, in King Richard the Second, the dying Gaunt goes to punning on his name:
"Old Gaunt indeed; and gaunt in being old:
This, notwithstanding it is defended by so sound a critic as Schlegel, seems to me a decided blot; I cannot accept it as right either in itself or on the score of dramatic fitness. Many like instances occur in Romeo and Juliet, King John, and other plays of that period; instances which I cannot help regarding not only as breaches of good taste in the speakers, but as plain faults of style in the Poet himself: the blame of them indeed properly rests with him, not with the persons; for they are out of keeping with the sentiments of the occasion, and jar on the feelings which the surrounding matter inspires; that is, they are sins against dramatic propriety, as well as against honest manliness of style: so that, however the pressure of the age may account for them, it must not be taken as excusing them; and the best we can say on this point is, that in his Vol. i. 9 M