Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB

individual,” says Pope. No, cries Johnson, it is the “species.” And Schlegel, with Germanic vagueness, floats between these extreme contraries. Extreme and contrary, for they are both alike remote from the truth, and as far remote as possible. They may easily be shown to be effectually absurd. There could be no excellence in discerning, and no interest in witnessing, what is common to all men, or what is proper to each ; for these are what lie trivially familiar on the surface. The brute animals themselves can distinguish their own species, and in the species can recognise the individuals severally. In the human, the first impression, universally, spontaneously, on beholding a fellow-being is, that he is a man, and such a man; and he who should pretend, by exhibition or by argument, to add to the assurance of or interest in either character, would run the risk of seeming less a genius than a bore. In fact, the specialty of the bore is to be ever characterising by the platitudes of commonplace or the nick-nackeries of circumstance. This nullity of the common and the individual “characters,” arises from the fact that they impart no information, either objectively by impression or reflexively by interest—in Aristotle's formula, excite no terror and no pity; and their concurrence in the

; impotence is but a common case of the tendency of all extremes to meet in imbecility. Both the principles may be elucidated by the axiom of logic which makes the individual and the

genus

indefinable. For what definition is in science, characterization is in art.

Shakespeare then, in praise or censure, has, by even his serious critics, been examined on no principles of the dramatic art. They have, for want of definition, but been trying to

describe him, by a medley of attributions affected equally to sundry others. He is eloquent, wise, witty, philosophical, in short, all things, save precisely the distinctions of his proper power and province. This licentiousness of criticism is a cause of its own barrenness; for that of which one may say most things, is that of which he can show least. It is the case of the enamoured Quixote who, to analyse his idol, is represented by the Spanish Shakespeare as falling back upon the alphabet.

As for the minores gentium of the Shakespearian commentators, the less that is said of them, the better for all parties. They would be best characterised, perhaps, as abecederian. Old spellings, old readings, old editions, and their forms ; contemporary pamphlets, anecdotes, allusions; personal transactions, account-books, receipts ; autographs, tavern-bills, localities, dates, days; in fine, an exact list (controlled like all the rest by controversy) of the number of canes and snuff-boxes made from the famous tree of the poet-such have been the burthen of a hundred native essays, and the basis of a score of new editions of his works. 1

Not one, perhaps, of the multitude, either essayist or editor, has decently attempted an analysis of those works or seemed to think at all of compassing the “man-mountain" as a whole. The gravest theoretic tentatives were the mere pre

1 This description of research has been pushed to the perfection of discovering that, at the burial of one of Shakespeare's sisters, the cost of " bell-ringing" amounted to the sum of 8 pence, which was something above the minimum of popular expenditure. Whence it has been deduced, with a logic no less national, that the family of the poet must have been “well to do" in the world, and therefore his productions the more evidently works of genius.

a

faces alluded to. The few remarks of Pope are intelligent enough ; but they are merely technical or vaguely descriptive. Warburton has added but his catches and combativeness. Johnson's lengthier preface is able and honest. But it is the dissertation of a man of wit, not views; of a critic, not an artist ; of a moralist, not a philosopher; it is not an exposi

; tion of systematic doctrines that goes to give a clearer comprehension of Shakespeare, but a pyrotechnic blaze of points, proprieties, pros and cons, along the trellis of a stately style, that leaves one after in the same obscurity. The writer has, however, well discerned in principle the cause of the microscopic groping of the critics. Parts," says he, “are not to be examined till the whole has been surveyed; there is a kind of intellectual remoteness necessary to the comprehension of any great work in its full design, and in its true proportions ; a close approach shows the smaller niceties, but the beauty of the whole is not discovered.” 1 And yet this whole, as applied to Shakespeare in his genius or his works, he was himself as far from compassing as most of the other English critics. It should, however, be remembered that the feat is not easy. Goethe, speaking too of Shakespeare, in Wilhelm Meister, observes truly: "Few Germans, and perhaps few persons of any modern nation, are capable of appreciating an æsthetic whole."

2. But Shakespeare must have had a unity at least in his own genius, and have stamped it on his writings by a necessity no less organic. To know this unity was the first requisite to comprehend and to criticise him. To make it It seems, how

i Preface to Shakespeare.

a

known would be an effort too ambitious for a preface, and can only be expected as a result of the volume. ever, indispensable to give some previous indications, and not impossible to bring them within suitable dimensions.

All genius of the supreme order, more especially in the arts, is the expression (not the organ) of an advance in social progress. It does not operate the result, but exhibit it to the operator. This impelling force at bottom is the general experience, which accumulates through ages, much in the manner of a coral edifice. The work, while deep beneath the ocean of the primeval ignorance, remains unnoted in the multiform eccentricities called popular usages. As it approximates the surface, coming mystically in various conflict with the voyagers of this moral sea, the generalizers of the day, the myriad prominences, thus invested at once with dubiousness and danger, are by them fancied into the character and the consistence named mythology. When, ages later, the reef emerges a spacious island into light and unity, the divine mystery falls away, the lurking deities are forgotten, the poet supplants the theologian, to humanise the mystic

The typic creatures—here all moral, like the experience whence they emanated-pass before him, as another Adam, to receive rank and denomination. They must already have existed in romances or storied records attached to some historic personage of the community thus symbolised. The drama, as the name expresses, puts the story into action, in

1

scene.

1 It is of course sufficient for the purpose of the text that such has been and still is the common opinion, although it be more probable that the coraline formation composes but a mere coating of a volcanic mountain.

conditions that evolve the latent features of the character; that is, that analyse the long subterranean process of the public understanding in the creation of the myth, and thus delight it with the spectacle of its own properties and powers; in fine, that open its unconscious possessions into consciousness, or in the words of Shakespeare, hold the mirror up to nature. The genius of the innovating poet and philosopher is the capacity of seizing these leading germs of the general mind, and of unfolding them, the poet to flower, and the philosopher to fruit. This genius, therefore, has the unity of that which it embraces, the unity of impulsion, of growth, of inspiration ; though lower grades have but the unity of object or of art.

From such a chaotic or coraline elaboration of the national mind, excited chiefly by the wars of Troy, which threw together so many peoples, of which the deeds and the distinctions took mythic body in the long interval—from this, accordingly, arose at last the great Eschylus and the Greek drama. So, from the cycle of the middle ages—a similar chaos, on a vaster scale, of wars, races, and the romances that personified them — issued Shakespeare. But though the poets be thus analogous in origin and excellence, their provinces were as divergent as the epochs and the scenes. The Greek was limited to the experience of an angle of Europe ; the British poet enjoyed the whole, with twenty centuries more of history. The former, too, as the initiator, must have wrought on the exterior—on the actions, costumes, customs, of the tribes of his traditions. The modern innovator, by this subsequence, must pass in order to the interior-must seek the ideas and the characters that are the causes of such externals, and, as a consequence, depict, not families or tribes,

« ZurückWeiter »